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8/8/2014 Hurricane?

The next Timmy Tonka strip is up for everyone who votes! I'll be doing one more next week to round out this current set.

I don't know how much news coverage it's been gettng outside of Hawaii, but there's a couple of hurricanes / tropical storms that will be hitting the islands over the week. It's not looking like it will be too serious, at least here on Oahu, but you never know. If something happens to the electricity or cable, Monday's PV update might be delayed or skipped, though I really doubt it will come to that.

Anyway, have a good weekend and I'll hopefully see you on Monday.


8/6/2014 This and that

There's always things to do. Whether it's dealing with stuff related to my move, preparing for the new job, working on Aurora's Nightmare, or more normal things like exercise. Not to mention more leisurely pursuits and doing things with my parents. With so much going on, figuring out how to divide up my time is a bit trickier than normal, something that's likely to continue for the next month or so while I settle in here in Hawaii and get acclimated to the new job. I'm making progress on all fronts, which is good, but it'll be nice when I can get into a more normal routine.

Anyway, enough rambling. See you Friday!


8/4/2014 Upcoming travelogue

While I'm not ready quite yet, expect the return of my Hawaii travelogue in the not too distant future. Though, since I've already hit quite a lot of the major tourist attractions on the island, there'll likely be more of a focus on what it's like to live here, along with the return of restaurant reviews. That said, I will be talking about the occasional hike and other attractions as well. For example, on Friday I went to the Oahu Wet n Wild water park for the first time. Unfortunately, I didn't have my camera with me but, since I'll be living near there, I went ahead and got a season pass so I'll take some pictures next time I go and give it a full write-up then. In the meantime, I've got various things to do related to the move, prep for my new job, and the like. Not to mention my work on Aurora's Nightmare...



8/1/2014 Making progress

The next Timmy Tonka strip is up! Just vote to see it.

Well, it looks like I've got a place to live (pending assorted final approval type things), though it'll probably be a month or so before I can move in. I'll talk more about it and show some pictures and all that when the time comes. But it's a really nice place and in a convenient location for work. A part of me does wish I could live in Honolulu, since I love being able to walk to shops, restaurants, and other attractions (like the beach) whenever I want, without having to drive everywhere. I've had that in the past, but only for very short periods of time, not at any of my main places of residence. Ah well, maybe someday... Besides, the commute from Honolulu to work could be problematic and a good place to live there would be way beyond my current budget. And, even if I do go into Honolulu a couple of times a week, it'll still be less driving than I was doing in Florida.

Have a good weekend!


7/30/2014 House hunting

I've been in Hawaii for around a week now and I'm keeping busy. Right now, I'm mostly focused on finding a place to live. Staying with my parents is fine for now, but their place isn't especially large or close to my workplace, so it won't work forever. Unfortunately, prices here are high and both finding and getting a good place isn't easy. Aside from that, I've been getting back to work on Aurora's Nightmare and taking care of a few other tasks. So far, it's been a strange mix of busy and not so busy times and recovering from the past couple of months of traveling, moving, and the like.

Anyway, now that the Florida travelogue is finished, I'll likely start writing more about Hawaii in the not too distant future, though probably not for a little while yet.

See you Friday!


7/28/2014 A farewell to Florida

It's time for one last entry to wrap up my Florida travelogue series. At least for the foreseeable future.

A Farewell to Florida
With a new job in a new state, my time in Florida has come do an end. It's been around three years since I first moved there and, while there are some things I'll miss, I am kind of happy to leave. It'll be great to live near actual mountains and hiking trails again and I can hopefully cut down on the amount of driving I've had to do on a weekly basis. Anyway, let's start off with the things I'll miss.
Friends: This is an obvious enough one. While a lot of the friends I made during my time in Florida have actually moved away as well, I still have a number of friends in the Gainesville and Jacksonville areas from my synagogue and the UF Japan Club, and they'll be missed.
Favorite Restaurants: Overall, I'll have a much better selection of restaurants in Hawaii. That said, Alachua has a few great restaurants. I'm gonna miss Conestogas (a nice local burger place), Moe's (a really good burrito chain), and New York Pizza Plus (one of my favorite pizza places anywhere).
Theme Parks: While it would have been nice if I didn't have to drive quite so far to get to them, I had a lot of fun visiting all the theme parks and water parks. I'm gonna miss the rides, the shows, and all the awesome food (especially at Epcot).
And, well, that's about it. I never did get to see the final part of New Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom and I never did get to drive around southern Florida like I wanted. But hey, that gives me reasons to go back. And I would like to return to Florida sometime, for a vacation at least. Probably either Orlando or further south. Actually, that pretty much sums up my thoughts on if I ever ended up living in Florida again. Honestly, it's not one of the top places on my list. But I think I'd enjoy living there a lot more if I was in Orlando (quick and easy access to all the big attractions) or in the far south (better weather and good beaches).
Still, it's been fun. Goodbye Florida, I don't know when, but I'm sure I'll be back eventually.


7/25/2014 Diagon Alley

The next Timmy Tonka strip is up! Just click the TWC button and vote to see it. Now, for that travelogue entry...

Sunday (July 20th): Universal Studios
For anyone reading this out of the context of my regular news posts, I returned to Florida a bit early this summer to get everything ready for my impending move to Oahu, where I'll be starting a new job in the fall. Most of my time was occupied by packing and other move prep stuff, but I also found a bit of time to hang out with friends and check out the art museum in Gainesville, which had a special exhibit of Japanese wood block paintings of the Tokaido road, which I wanted to see. As a note, they have a very nice permanent Asian gallery as well. But, if I had the time, I really wanted to take a last trip or two to Orlando. I had thought about going to Disney to check out the new Snow White ride in the Magic Kingdom, since I had one last day on my pass. But, being a Florida resident pass, it had a bunch of blackout dates so it didn't work out.
The other thing I really wanted to see before leaving was the new Diagon Alley area at Universal Studios. So my friend Robert (another big Harry Potter fan) and I headed out. While the original Harry Potter section (Hogsmeade, which I've written about in the past) is in Universal Islands of Adventure, Diagon Alley is in regular Universal Studios. And that was a good move, Universal was in need of some more attractions. I gave the park a pretty thorough write-up last time I visited, so this time I'll be focusing on Diagon Alley and the other new attractions.
Once at Universal, Robert and I got park to park tickets, which let you enter both Universal and Islands of Adventure. Why? Well, you'll see in a bit... The first new thing I saw after entering the park was a Despicable Me ride. There was a new Transformers ride as well, though we decided to save both of them for later and focus on Diagon Alley in hopes of beating the crowds. At first, the Diagon Alley area is set up like an ordinary London street, though fans will spot a few familiar buildings and a couple of magical oddities before ducking behind a building and passing through a hole in the wall into Diagon Alley proper. Unlike Hogsmeade, Diagon Alley is entirely walled off from the rest of the park, blocking out views of the other areas and making it even easier to feel like you've stepped into Harry's world. Here I am on one of the main streets. While I love Hogsmeade, I have to say that, in many ways, Diagon Alley surpasses it. Fans of the books and/or movies will spot recognizable shops everywhere they look. If there's a Diagon Alley store, restaurant, or other building named in the books, you'll find it here and, in most cases, can go inside and take a look. After getting some butterbeer, Robert and I spent quite a while just wandering around, exploring the buildings, and pointing out all the familiar places and items to be found. And it's not just Diagon Alley, Nocturne Alley is there as well (dark, cool, and spooky), complete with a certain famous shop for items related to the darker side of magic. And throughout the entire area you'll find a number of costumed employees roaming about, further enhancing the atmosphere.
I wish I'd had the wand I bought in Hogsmeade a while back. Aside from how well it would fit the area, there are actually a number of spots scattered around where, by standing and waving your wand in the proper way, you can trigger all sorts of different devices and other effects. If you want to feel like a witch or wizard, this really is the place.
After walking around for a while, we grabbed an early lunch at The Leaky Cauldron. It's cool, though I think The Three Broomsticks over in Hogsmeade is the better place to eat. As a note, Diagon Alley has an expanded selection of magical drinks, adding to the staple butterbeer and pumpkin juice. Though for those of you interested in trying out different ones, I'll note that Gilly Water is just plain old bottled water.
After eating, we checked for the line for the Gringott's mine cart ride, which was sporting a massive 2 1/2 hour wait. That was a bit better than the three hours it was when we first passed, but still really long. So we decided to head to the area's other ride. The Hogwarts Express is both a ride and a convenient way of going between Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. However, you need a ticket with park to park access in order to ride it. That makes for a clever way for Universal to sell more of those tickets (which naturally cost more), but it also helps keep the line down. To get on the Hogwarts Express, you first have to leave Diagon Alley and make your way through a recreation of King's Cross station. Eventually, of course, you pass through to Platform 9 3/4 and find the Hogwarts Express. It's a fairly simple train ride, but the windows have been replaced with screens, displaying the appropriate countryside (and the occasional wizard or magical beast) as your journey progresses. Meanwhile, you can see silhouettes and hear voices of the students as they walk past your cabin, including Harry, Ron, and Hermione. It's really cool and it actually changes depending on which direction you're going, making it worth riding at least twice.
After arriving in Hogsmeade, which was a bit less crowded, Robert and I went on the old Harry Potter rides and walked around the rest of Islands of Adventure, hitting most of our favorite attractions. After a while, we took the Hogwarts Express back to Diagon Alley. The Gringotts line had, unfortunately, gotten even longer (an utterly ridiculous five hours) so, after a stop at Fluorene Fortescue's ice cream parlor (which has some interesting flavors such as butterbeer, clotted cream, and chocolate chili), we decided to go around the rest of the park. We hit some rides I did last time I was there, such as The Simpsons and Men in Black, played a little DDR in an arcade (they have a really nice machine there), and also tried out the Transformers 3D ride. It's part ride (you're in a car that moves along a track, tilts, shakes, and the like) and part 3D movie and pretty well done. I'm not really a Transformers fan but I enjoyed it. Well, except for the movies that played while waiting in line, which were full of cringe worthy dialogue.
By the time we finished, evening had arrived and the Gringotts line was still super long, so we stepped out of the park onto Universal Citywalk (the shopping and dining area right outside) and ate at a Cuban restaurant.
Back in Universal, we spent a bit of time taking in Diagon Alley as it got dark and stopped to watch a performance from Celestina Warbeck, the singing sorceress, which was quite entertaining. Unfortunately, we finally had to give up on Gringotts. That was disappointing, but I'm sure I'll be back someday, when I'll definitely make a point of riding it. Instead, we finished up the day with the Despicable Me ride, which is a 3D movie combined with seats that tilt and shake. Not bad, but not especially amazing either.
All in all, while it's too bad I wasn't about to go on the Gringotts ride, it was a great day. Diagon Alley is awesome and, in many ways, even better than Hogsmeade. Though, of course, using a park to park ticket and the Hogwarts Express to see them both is really the ultimate experience. It also makes Universal Studios, which used to be, in my opinion, the least interesting of the Orlando theme parks, a much more fun and exciting place to visit.

And that'll do it for today. I'll make a final post to wrap up the Florida travelogue next week.


7/23/2014 A problematic trip

Well, I made it to Hawaii but it was far from a smooth trip. They canceled my flight out of Gainesville fairly last minute, without any sort of advance notification, requiring my entire itinerary to be rebooked. Sad thing is, there was more than enough time to drive to Orlando and catch my original flight if I'd had any way to do so. So I ended up waking up early for nothing and getting stranded in the Gainesville airport for several hours without anything to eat. Then, after running from gate to gate to make my next two connections I end up in Houston only to be told that they canceled my next flight. It eventually got reinstated, but with too much of a delay to make my following connection, so the second half of my itinerary got rebooked again. After that though, things went more smoothly and I made it to Hawaii., albeit several hours later than originally planned. But, not too surprisingly with all the mess with the airlines, they lost my suitcase..again. I hope this doesn't become the norm...

Anyway, I was going to write about Diagon Alley today but, after the day I've had, I'm pretty tired both mentally and physicality and don't think I could really do it justice so it'll have to wait for Friday.

See you then!


7/21/2014 Last day in Florida

The new Diagon Alley area at Universal Studios is pretty awesome. I should have a travelogue entry for it ready for Wednesday. Although, by then I'll be updating from Hawaii. PV updates shouldn't be affect by my move, though updates will, on average, be happening about six hours later in the day than they do now due to the different time zone. Still, unless you like to read PV really early in the morning or really late at night, you probably won't notice.

Well, see you in Hawaii!


7/18/2014 Almost done

Remember those Timmy Tonka strips I owe you guys from a couple months back? Well, now that I'm back in the US and finished with the Japan travelogue, I'm working on them again. They'll be running as voter bonus comics for the next few weeks and the first is up now!

Well, my stuff has been packed and picked up for transport to Hawaii. My car was picked up too (though I got a rental to avoid being stuck in my apartment). At this point, I just need to pack the things I'm taking with me on the plane, get rid of my remaining furniture (one way or another), and a few other assorted tasks that need to wait until right before I move out. Come Tuesday, I'll be leaving Florida for good (well, I'm sure I'll be back for a vacation or something eventually). I'm planning one last fun trip this Sunday, so expect a travelogue entry for that on Monday or Wednesday and then a final goodbye entry to end my Florida travelogue series later in the week.

Not much else to say since I've mostly been focused on prepping for the move since getting back from Japan. I suppose I could talk about various world events, but I prefer to keep that kind of stuff separate from PV. Besides, it's too worrying/depressing/frustrating. For something more light hearted, head over to Weird Al's site and check his new music video series, there's some great stuff there.

See you Monday!


7/16/2014 Less than a week...

Yep, that's all the time I have left in Florida. I've been spending most of my time since returning from Japan packing and getting assorted other stuff done. The movers were originally supposed to come Friday but then I got a call saying they're most likely coming today, which sent me into a bit of rush to get the last of the packing finished. Looks like I'll be roughing it for the next few days... Oh well, at least things seem to be progressing smoothly. And, with any luck, I'll have time for a little bit of fun before leaving Florida. But we'll talk about that another time...


7/14/2014 Wrapping up Japan

Time to finish up the Japan travelogue.

Monday (the 7th): Around Tokyo
After six weeks of nearly non-stop touring, I was getting pretty tired and, with my rail pass expired, I decided to take it fairly easy for my last couple of days and just have fun in Tokyo. I started out the day strolling around Harajuku. Didn't find the type of shirt I wanted, but it was interesting to see the latest styles (and the long line for the local pancake restaurant).
Moving on, I took the train a short distance to Shin-Okubo, which is home to the Korea Town area I mentioned in Saturday's post. I wanted to walk around and get a better feel for the place as well as grab some lunch. Being a Korean area, there are naturally lots of Korean restaurants. Some snack stands too. I tried what I suppose you could call the Korean equivalent of taiyaki or dorayaki. It's a pancake of sorts stuffed with something (the most common fillings I saw were cheese, honey, and red bean paste). I got a cheese and honey mix, which was pretty good. Other than food, there are also a lot of stores focused on Korean dramas and music and the various celebrities therein. Not really my thing, but I have some friends who are seriously into them. Back to the food, while I've never seen it at Korean restaurants in the US, fried chicken is actually a pretty popular Korean food. At least that's what my Korean friends tell me, and the restaurants in Korea Town seem to prove it. It's more like what you'd get at a chicken wing restaurant in the US than typical friend chicken (except it's all parts of the chicken, not just the wings), and every place seems to have their own collection of sauces. The ones I tried between Saturday night and today were a sweet teriyaki-ish sauce, a really spicy sauce, and a peanut sauce.
After I finished exploring, and eating, I moved on to Akihabara since I wanted to spend the points on my Yodobashi Camera card before leaving Japan. Ah Akihabara, a place where it's really not that strange if you see Ultra Man walking down the street. I had talked to my family over the weekend, and my dad and brother had been bugging me to try pachinko again, and there's a place I know in Akihabara, so I gave it a shot. I actually started out with a slot machine since it was themed after Madoka Magica (anime based slot and pachinko machines are a pretty big thing). My luck when it comes to games of chance is usually pretty abysmal, but I got off to a good start and tripled the 1000 Yen I put in. But I then proceeded to slowly lose it all over the next hour or so. I did worse in pachinko, losing 2000 Yen in around 20 minutes. So yeah, looks like my lucky hasn't really improved.

Tuesday (the 8th): Nihon Minkaen
I had plans to meet a friend for lunch, but that left me with the morning free so I decided to check out one last museum that had been sitting on my to-do list. Nihon Minkaen is out in the suburbs, about 20 minutes from Shinjuku. As a side note, check out this really skinny building I spotted on the way. That's Japanese buildings for you.
Anyway, Nihon Minkaen is one of those places where they collect old buildings from all over Japan and reassemble them to form an outdoor museum. It has a nice setting amidst some forested hills and is divided up in several "villages" based on different parts of Japan. As such, nearly all the buildings they have are houses. The Suzuki House was the most modern of the bunch, featuring an interesting mix of old style architecture with some newer western touches such as clocks and glass windows. Actually, quite a lot of the houses had some unusual element to them, such as the Misawa House with its stone and shingle roof. Here's a look inside the same house, where it's fairly typical for a somewhat wealthy Japanese family of that time period.
One thing that made Nihon Minkaen especially nice was that each house had multiple info signs (in Japanese and English) which went into detail about both the house itself and the occupation and lifestyle of the family who once lived in it. So you not only learn a bit about buildings, but about what life for like for different types of people in ancient Japan. Or, in some cases, not so ancient. Despite many of these houses being over 200 years old, some were still inhabited as late as the 1960's.
My favorite area was the Toyama style section, which features several gassho zukuri style houses, which I'd never seen before. Apparently, they were only built in two parts of Japan, both of which have very harsh winters. Snow couldn't collect very easily on the sloped roofs, making them unlikely to become weighted down and collapse. Also, if the snow got especially deep, the windows on the upper levels could be used to enter and exit the house.
You could go inside nearly every building. Most were set up much as they would have been when inhabited, but one was a museum focusing on traditional building methods and tools. For a quick lesson, your average old Japanese house (not counting those of the samurai and nobility, who tended to have more elaborate dwellings) featured a dirt or stone floored section which was used for things like cooking and storage (and, in some cases, a stable). There would also be a raised area for sitting, sleeping, eating, and the like. Usually there would be a mix of wooden floor rooms and fancier tatami mat rooms. As it was more expensive, poorer families often had relatively little tatami in their homes, limiting it to one or two special rooms, while samurai and other wealthier families might have tatami throughout much of their house. As a side those, the house in that last picture is rather unusual in that the raised floor was made of bamboo with straw mats laid on top.
I had a pleasant morning exploring the museum (check out the roof on the building towards the back, the plants are supposed to help strengthen it against wind) then headed back to Shinjuku to meet up with my friend, Ida. We ate lunch, chatted, and walked around for a bit. After that I swung by Nakano Broadway since I had a 500 Yen off coupon at one of my favorite stores, which I wanted to use. And finally I went back to Akihabara. Not to shop, but to stop by a favorite restaurant. And with that, my last full day in Japan came to a close.

Wednesday (the 9th): Returning to the US Once Again
Wednesday started out with getting my rented apartment ready for the move out inspection. Afterwards it was off to catch a train to the airport. Well, eventually. I actually got a bit earlier start than I needed to so I ended up stashing all my stuff in a coin locker and walking around Ueno for a while to kill some time and get lunch. Narita Airport is nice and all (seriously), but there's no need to spend too much time there. And that's about all I have to say about the trip back. Everything went smoothly, my apartment was fine when I returned, and I was able to get some much needed rest before starting on the preparations for my upcoming move.
Like before, I'm going to miss Japan. Whether I'm doing serious touring like this summer, or just having fun hanging out in and around Tokyo (like last year), I really enjoy spending time in Japan. At least for the short term. I suspect that, if I stayed long enough, various annoyances (small apartments, for example) would crop up like they did during my first (and longest) stay. Back then, when it was time to return to the US, I was ready to go. That said, I still haven't entirely ruled out living in Japan again. Right now I've got a new job in Hawaii to focus on for at least the next couple of years, but maybe someday if I found the right job... Anyway, whether or not I ever live in Japan again, if I have my way I'll definitely be back for another vacation before too long. There's still plenty of places I want to see and things and I want to do and besides, like I said, it's just plain fun. Maybe I'll give another shot at putting together a tour group... Drop me a line if that sounds like something you'd be interested in. Anyway, goodbye for now, Japan. It's been fun and I know I'll be back sooner or later.


7/11/2014 Finishing up in Kyushu

Well, I'm back in the US and starting on all the work related to my upcoming move. But there's a few entries left to go in my Japan travelogue. I'll post a couple today and then finish it up on Monday.

Friday (the 4th): Kagoshima
Since I wanted to be back in Tokyo in time for services on Saturday, I knew I'd have to go partway back tonight, so I checked out of my hotel and headed out. Actually, one of the reasons I decided to go to Kagoshima today, as opposed to earlier in the week, is because it's on the main Shinkansen line. In addition to the main places I wanted to see in the city itself, I also had a couple of optional things on my list, the first of which was a visit to Chiran. I had been thinking of skipping it, since it's kind of out of the way (there's no train station nearby, so you need to take an 80 minutes bus ride). You can save a few minutes by taking a local train halfway and then getting on the bus, which I did on the way there but, at best, you'd probably only save 15 minutes tops, so it's probably better to keep it simple and just take the bus all the way. Anyway, Chiran is a little town famous for its collection of samurai houses and gardens. When double checking the route, I saw a few pictures online and decided I really had to go, even if it would take several hours out of my day.
As a side note, here's a photo I took on the way. I'm not so sure Ultra Man characters are the best choice to model summer clothes...
So I got to Kagoshima, took the local train and then the bus, and finally arrived Chiran. It's a nice town and has a cool waterway running down the main street, there are actually koi in it. Anyway, after checking the times for the return bus, I got a ticket for the samurai gardens (FYI: you can't buy them at the gardens themselves, there's a couple of places selling them on the main street though). Anyway, during the Edo period Chiran was a samurai district (samurai were spread across the land in small groups to prevent the potential formation of large rebel groups and, being a small out of the way place, it survived pretty much intact. You can't go in any of the houses themselves because they're still inhabited, but seven of the gardens are open to the public. They're all small gardens, no walking trails or anything like that, but they're all diverse and extremely picturesque. Heck, it's practically worth going for the street itself, a lengthy stretch of stone walls and towering hedges. To enhance the atmosphere, no cars are allowed during the day. I went backwards (starting at garden number 7), though it really doesn't matter which way you go and that bus stop was closer to that end.
So the first garden I reached was More Shigematsu's. It's the only garden to use water as an element. A bit further down the street I came to Sata Naotada's house and garden. It makes use of a stone mountain, a common feature in the area's gardens. Sato Tamiko's garden is right nearby, and is supposed to represent a mountain river. This isn't a samurai house, but it's a rather unique one. Sato Mifune's garden is the largest of the bunch and looks kind of like a distant mountain range with a stone waterfall. Continuing down the road, I reached the last set of gardens. Hirayama Ryoichi's garden is a rather unique one, entirely composed of flowering shrubs trimmed to resemble rolling hills. You can see inside a bit of the house too. Finally, Hirayama Katsumi's garden and Saigo Keiichiro's garden both use a mixture of stone hills and island like shrubs. After reaching the end of the road, I decided to head back to the start to get some lunch. Turns out that walking that way is even better, since you have the mountains in the background.
Both my guide book and the pamphlet I got with my ticket recommended an hour to explore the seven gardens. That's about how long it took me for a fairly leisurely tour. However, while the buses usually run hourly, I arrived at the one time of day they don't, leaving me with a two hour wait instead. Well, that gave me plenty of time to get a nice lunch at a nearby soba place. As a side note, Chiran is also rather famous for its tea, which was pretty great.
After lunch and another bus ride I ended up back in Kagoshima. Due to spending two hours in Chiran, I got there a bit later than planned and wasn't sure if I'd have time to see all three locations on my list, but I figured I'd have time for at least two. There's a couple of tourist buses that run in a loop around the city, hitting all the major attractions. As a note, the City View Bus was slightly cheaper but the other line (can't remember the name) was more English friendly. Taking the tourist bus was actually kind of fun, turns out there are a lot of interesting looking places in Kagoshima that weren't in my book. I'd rather like to go back there for another day sometime to take a better look around.
The main stop on my list was Sengan-En, the garden of the Shimadzu family, the former lords of the area. It's fairly large and features a number of interesting elements. For example, the Shimadzu were a group that was instrumental to the modernization of Japan, both during and after the Edo period, and there are remnants of their work scattered about, like this hydro electric dam. There was also a kyokusui garden, which was for a party game (better known in China than Japan) where participants try to compose a poem before a boat carrying a cup of sake can float from one end of the stream to the other. And here we have something both traditional and practical, a water powered device used to thresh rice (turning brown rice into white rice). There's also a trail up a nearby hill, which gives you some nice views of Kagoshima and Sakurajima (a nearby island with a volcanic mountain with what are supposed to be some good hiking trails; I'll have to plan for a day there sometime as well).
Admission to the garden includes the nearby museum (the second place on my list), which is all about the Shimadzu and their efforts to develop and introduce new technology to the country. There's a good bit of English, and it's pretty interesting stuff. By the time I finished, everything was about to close so I did have to skip my last planned stop, but it was worth it to see Chiran. I headed back to the train station and caught the last Shinkansen to Osaka (the furthest north I could get that evening), where I spent the night.

Sunday (the 6th): Tanabata
Saturday morning I caught a Shinkansen back to Tokyo and then went to services in the afternoon. Since it was my last weekend, a bunch of friends took me out for dinner. Even after all the time I've spent in Tokyo, it still holds plenty of surprises, and they introduced me to the city's Korea Town, where we went to eat. It was a fun night, but I'll talk more about the area in tomorrow's post, since I plan to go back there and take a better look around.
Today, after making up for some lost sleep, I went to Hiratsuka for the last day of their big Tanabata celebration. You might remember that I went there last year (see the Friday the 5th entry) as well. But then I was there Friday morning and afternoon. This year I was there on a Sunday from mid-afternoon until evening. Naturally, it was a lot more crowded. Like last year though, there were lots of cool streamers and food stalls. As an interesting side note, last year when I was there they had a rather unique type of taiyaki with an open mouth which was then stuffed with fruit and whipped cream. This year they were nowhere to be seen, instead all the taiyaki were made using a flaky pastry dough instead of the regular batter. I wander if doing different kinds of taiyaki every year is a thing there? Anyway, it was a fun time, despite the crowds. Only a couple days left now...


7/7/2014 It's always something

As a note, Wednesday's update might be skipped due to the timing of my flight back to the US. I'll update if I can, but no promises.

Looks like I'll have to resign myself to not getting this travelogue caught up. It'll just have to run a little bit past the end of my trip. I really thought I'd have time over the weekend to get everything ready for an extra big update today, but I had some important e-mails and other things to deal with and it didn't happen. Anyway, let's just continue from where we left off...

Wednesday (the 2nd): Nagasaki
A bit of a history lesson is in order here. Nagasaki become an important center of Japanese international trade in the mid 1500's and, once the country entered its self imposed isolation period in 1633, it was one of the only places where foreign trade was allowed, albeit only with the Dutch and Chinese and under very strict regulations.
One of the first things that struck me after arriving in Nagasaki is how it's built on hills. Now I've been to lots of Japanese towns and cities which are in the mountains and they usually don't built on steep slopes like what you can see in that photo. Normally the buildings are confined to the base of the mountain or the gentler slopes, with the higher areas only having one or two buildings if anything. So that stuck out a bit.
But anyway, I got a tourist map and headed off to my first destination, though I got distracted on the way by this very unique temple. My actual destination, Shofukuji Temple, wasn't all that special by comparison, but it did have the most cheerful Buddha statue I've ever seen and, surprisingly a few banana trees. There was also a wall made out of broken roof tiles. That isn't especially unusual in old Japanese architecture, but this one used some dragon shaped tiles, giving it a rather cool look.
But the temples were just brief stops on my way to the Nagasaki Museum of History and Culture. Naturally, it focuses mainly on Nagasaki's history as an international trading city. See the Dutch traders in this folding screen painting? They're the ones with the puffy pants. And here we have a mother of pearl and lacquer cabinet. Nagasaki was famous for its mother of pearl work and things like this were one of the city's main exports, along with porcelain, metals, and rare red coral carvings. The museum was quite interesting, though the English information was limited unless you borrowed an audio guide. Actually, one of their volunteer guides came up to me when I was browsing to offer some explanations. He started out in English, but my Japanese was better than his English so we eventually switched over. He was a nice guy and very knowledgable, though I ended up spending far longer in the museum than I'd planned since he had a tendency to speak for a pretty long time about nearly every exhibit. There was one other section of the museum as well, which is a recreation of the home of a city magistrate from the Edo period. Here's a scene of a trade deal being conducted.
Once I finally left the museum, I walked along a river or canal, past a number of stone bridges, and eventually into a shopping arcade, where I got lunch. Next was Sofukuji temple (no, that's not a mistake, Nagasaki has a lot of temples with very similar names). Now, if you've been following my travelogues, you may notice that temple and its gate are not in the typical Japanese style. If you're especially observant, you may realize that it has a lot in common with the temples I saw in China a few weeks back. And there's a reason for that. It was built by the city's Chinese residents in the early 1600's and is one of the very few Chinese style temples in Japan. And it's far from the only Chinese influence in Nagasaki. There's a small China Town nearby and it's not a far walk to the old Chinese quarter (where Chinese traders were restricted to during Japan's isolation policy, to avoid having them mix with the general populace). Though little remains of the original quarter, it's mostly an ordinary residential district now.
My next destination was also Chinese in origin, though a bit newer. The Confucian Shrine was quite impressive all the way through, though I'll note that the museum in the back (which about about Chinese culture), had no English at all. Really nice buildings though.
After finishing my tour of Chinese areas, I moved on to things with a more European influence. Glover Garden covers the side of a hill and features great views of the city (which I'm sure would be even better if it hadn't been raining at the time). The garden itself is mostly European in style, as Thomas Glover was a British man who moved to Japan in 1898 after the end of the isolation policy. He has a long list of accomplishments to his name and was one of the key figures involved in modernizing the country. Anyway, it's a nice garden with plenty of flowers and some water features (gotta love the turtle basking on the turtle statue, talk about life imitating art...), but the main focus is on the old buildings scattered throughout, including Glover's house and the houses of several other important European figures from that time period, which you can go inside. Kinda interesting, though personally I'd rather see the inside of old Japanese houses than European ones, especially when I'm in Japan. The exit from the garden (or maybe the entrance, depending which direction you go) goes through a small museum about Nagasaki's biggest festival. Note how the floats are boat shaped, in reference to the city's history.
My last stop was Dejima, a small artificial island which the Dutch traders were confined to during the isolation policy. It was walled, and entry and exit were strictly regulated. After the isolation policy ended, it fell into disuse and all the original structures were destroyed. Now, however, much of it has been restored and they're working on the rest. Some of the building interiors are restored to how they were when originally in use, showing an odd mix of Japanese and European styles. Others have been turned into museums about various things related to the trade system and the restoration project. It was all very interesting and I wish I'd gotten to Dejima a bit earlier in the day, as I only had about an hour before it closed and had to move a bit more quickly than I would have liked. Here's one last picture, showing a collection of traditional Japanese rain gear in one of the restored buildings.
After that, I took a street car back to the station and returned to Fukuoka, wrapping up the day.

Random Japan Comment: The Kyushu Difference
On the one hand, I wouldn't say that Kyushu is all that different from the main part of Japan, but you do see a bit more of a European and Chinese influence than in most other areas, especially when in Nagasaki and the surrounding areas. There are also various volcanic mountains in the area, which are supposed to have excellent hiking trails (though I didn't get the chance to go). A number of cities also have street cars as their primary means of public transportation, rather than regular trains or subways.

Thursday (the 3rd): Beppu
Kyushu is known for its onsen (hot springs), no small feat in a country where they can be found just about everywhere. And no onsen town on Kyushu (perhaps even in all of Japan) is more famous than Beppu. Aside from the onsen, Beppu's main attraction is the eight hells, so I decided to start off my day with them before hitting the onsen. While the hells are a ways away from the train station, quite a lot of buses go to them, and there's a very nice bus route map at the terminal.
The hells are a collection of geothermal pools, much like what you can find at Yellowstone National Park or other similar areas. Of the eight, some are better than others, but if you plan to visit at least half of them you might as well buy a combo ticket for all eight, which is what I did. The closest hell to the bus stop was Yama-Jigoku, so that's where I started. It gets its name from the large mound of mud that formed over the years (which you can't really see in the photo since it was raining, really upping the amount of steam from this and all the other hells). Like many of the hells, it includes another attraction so there's more to do than just look at the pool. Specifically, they've got a tiny zoo. Personally, I found it to be one of the least impressive hells, and would say it's a good choice to skip if you're short on time or money. On the other hand, if you get a combo ticket and have a few minutes, there's no reason not to look.
Oniishibozu-Jigoku was right nearby so I went there next. Its has several gray pools spread throughout a nice little park like area and all of the pools have a number of large bubbles, which can be fun to watch.
Right next door (so to speak) was my favorite of the hells, Umi-Jigoku. Before you reach the hell, you pass a large pond covered with water lilies, giving it one of the nicest settings. The pond also has some of those giant amazon lily pads I've seen at various botanical gardens. Turns out they're stronger than I thought. I saw a sign saying that, for several days in mid-August, little kids (weighing up to 20 kilograms or around 44 pounds) are able to go out and stand on them for a nice photo op. The hell itself is pretty large and a beautiful shade of blue. I stopped to sample one of the local specialties (egg pudding made with eggs boiled in the hell) and was on my way out when I spotted a side trail leading to a small reddish pool and a greenhouse heated by the hell, which was full of water lilies.
The next group of hells were a several minute walk down the hill. Gotta say, you can tell you're in an onsen town. Anyway, the springs at Kamado-Jigoku were once used to cook food (hence the statue of the oni on the cook pot). There are were several pools, all different, including a reddish pool, a mud pool, and a light blue pool. You could also drink some water from one of the hells (I tried a sip, had a bit of a minerally taste) or get an egg boiled in another. Unlike the onsen eggs I got when I visited Hakone (see Friday the 28th) last year, the shell remained white, while the inside turned a dark tan color. Still tasted pretty much like a normal egg though. Kamado-Jigoku also featured the nicest foot bath of any of the hells.
Hell number five, Oniyama-Jigoku, is another one I wasn't all that fond of. They use the warm water to raise crocodiles. But all there is to see is small concrete pools filled with crocodiles and the height of the walls and bars prevents you from getting a very good view.
A little further down the road, Shiraike-Jigoku is a large bluish pool set inside a Japanese garden and is quite scenic. There's also a handful of fish tanks with tropical fish, but nothing all the special except some piranha.
The final two hells are in a different part of town. It's recommended you take the bus, but my timing was horrible in that regard and I figured walking would be a lot faster than waiting. Instead of following the road the bus would take, I decided to cut through Kannawa (the little town/resort are where I was) to look around and maybe find some lunch. Turns out that wasn't the greatest idea. While the numerous tourist maps posted around the area make it look simple enough, they were off in layout or scale or something. I eventually became rather unsure of my route and resorted to Google Maps only to find that I'd gone a decent distance in the wrong direction. Ah well, it wasn't a total waste of time. I got to see a restaurant that cooked all its food using steam from an onsen, try some more onsen water, and get a nice view. And, in the end, I still beat the bus there, though not by much.
Chinoike-Jigoku is known as the blood pool due to its red color, though all the steam and rain made it look a bit more like rusty orange when I saw it. It's cool to look at but other than a big souvenir store there wasn't much else there so I soon moved on to the final hell, Tatsumaki-Jigoku, which isn't a pool so much as a geyser. It's known for its frequent and lengthy eruptions, kind of like Old Faithful in Yellowstone. That rock wall was built around the geyser to keep the spray limited to a relatively small area. Useful for letting tourists get in close without worrying about people getting hit with extremely hot water, but in my opinion it makes the eruptions a bit less impressive than they otherwise would be.
Having finished the hells, I caught a bus back to Beppu station. I thought about trying a hot sand bath (more like a hot sand burial), which the area is known for, but it was still raining and I figured that, even if the place stayed open, I didn't really want to lay outside in the rain. So instead, I caught a free shuttle bus to Suginoi Palace. It's probably the most famous onsen resort in Beppu and you can use the onsen whether or not you're staying at the Suginoi Hotel (though if you're not you'll also want to skip the first two stops on the bus, which are for hotel guests). There's a few different parts to Suginoi Palace. I started at AquaBeat, it's a mini indoor water park using hot springs water. Note that admission for Aqua Beat is separate from that of the other areas (unless you're a hotel guest, in which case you get into everything for free). It's got a wave pool, lazy river, a few good water slides, a kiddy area, and several outdoor pools just for sitting and relaxing. Nothing too special, but I had fun on the slides (which were free with admission).
After that, I moved on to Suginoi Palace proper, where one ticket gets you access to Tanyu and The Aqua Garden. Tanyu is the standard Japanese onsen area. Gender separated, no swimsuits, and all that. Unlike some places I've been, there wasn't much in the way of special baths. There were a few individual cypress tubs, and one bath with some yuzu (a Japanese citrus) floating around in it, but that was it. But what made Tanyu awesome was the setting. Do you know what an infinity pool is? Well, Tanyu is an infinity onsen of sorts, set on the side of a hill and giving you an amazing view of Beppu down below. The baths were very nice by themselves, but it's the view that really makes them something special.
I eventually pulled myself away to check out The Aqua Garden, which is a swimsuit onsen pool with a similar view (though it doesn't go right up to the edge like Tanyu does). There's also a spot where you can get a water jet massage, and that cone thing in the back in a salt water pool where you're supposed to just lay back and float for a while. Finally, there's an hourly show at night. It's most impressive after dark when it starts out with a light and music show projected onto mist and then moves onto a combination of music and colored fountains. When it's still light, all you get are are regular fountains set to music. Still nice, but not nearly as cool.
I kind of wished I was spending the night at Suginoi Palace so I could have stayed in the baths longer, but I had to get back to Fukuoka so, after the show, I got dressed and headed out. Gotta say, I can see why so Beppu is so famous.

Random Japan Comment: JR Pass
A JR or Japan Rail Pass is something you should consider getting if you're planning a trip to Japan. Basically, it gives you unlimited rides on all JR trains (except two specific Shinkansen lines, which is a minor annoyance since there's a couple slightly slower ones following the same route), regular (non-long distance) JR buses, and the one JR ferry (which goes to Miyajima). However, the passes can only be purchased while outside of Japan and, when exchanging your voucher for the actual pass once in Japan, they'll check your passport to make sure you're on a tourist visa. Passes come in 1, 2, or 3 week versions, and you can pay extra for one that gives you a seat in the fancier green cars (not worth it unless you're the kind of person who buys first class tickets on planes). Note that it doesn't work on subways, street cars, or the occasional non-JR train (such as the Odyaku line which covers the Hakone area).
You should, however, keep in mind that a pass is only cost effective if you're going to be doing some long distance traveling on Shinkansen. For example, this is my first time getting a pass. My first two stays in Japan, I was on a working visa so I didn't qualify. Last summer, I could have gotten one but, since I planned to stay in and around Tokyo, I would have ended up losing money on the deal. This year, however, I wanted to travel to a number of far off places. My three week pass cost around $540. Just my train tickets to Fukuoka and back would have cost around $440 and when you add in the trips to Osaka and Sendai, and all the shorter rides to my various touring destinations, my pass probably paid for itself about three times over. Another advantage of the pass is that it covers reserved seats (the regular kind) on Shinkansen and limited express trains (though you'll have to go to a ticket window and get a ticket if you want one, rather than just hopping on the train), which is nice when you've got a long ride ahead and want to make sure you don't get stuck standing the whole way, since non-reserved seats are first come first served.


7/4/2014 Exploring Kyushu

Happy Independence Day to everyone in the US! Looks like I'm missing it again this year. Sigh... Oh well, I am having a pretty awesome vacation. And, as always, there's a new Blooper Reel comic for everyone who votes.

Monday (the 30th): Kumamoto
The one problem with my travel plans for Kyushu is that I actually have eight days of stuff to do and only six days to spend in the area. So, to that end, I decided to try and combine the shortest of my day trips with the rest of the things I wanted to see in Fukuoka into one day. So I got an early start and took the Shinkansen to the city of Kumamoto.
My first stop in Kumamoto was Suizenji Garden, a famous landscape garden dating back to 1636 (though it continued to be developed for the next 80 years afterwards). It's actually designed to bring to mind the 53 stations of the Tokaido Road (the ancient road connecting Tokyo (then called Edo) and Kyoto). This hill, for example, is supposed to represent Mt. Fuji. While the garden isn't especially large (it's about medium size for a Japanese garden), there's a path which goes around the whole thing and, like most Japanese gardens, it's all about strolling around and appreciating it from many different angles. Anyway, it's a very nice garden and I really liked the simulated mountains.
Leaving the garden, I passed down a small touristy street with vendors selling sweets made from sweet potatoes (a local specialty, and quite a good one). There was also lots and lots of stuff featuring Kumamon, Kumamoto Prefecture's official mascot (kuma being the Japanese word for bear). I think every prefecture has a cute mascot these days, but Kumamon is one of the most popular, to the point where a lot of the nearby prefectures sell Kumamon souvenirs as well.
From there, I hopped on a street car (basically a trolly, or a small train that runs in the middle of the street) heading towards Kumamoto Castle. It's considered to be one of the more famous and beautiful castles in Japan. Unfortunately, much of it burned down during the Seinan Rebellion in 1877 so the main tower, and a number of the other buildings currently there, are reconstructions. That said, they're good ones, done using traditional materials and techniques. And, while most cities with reconstructed castles stop with the main tower, Kumamoto's restoration project (which has been running since 1998) seems to be aiming to eventually restore the majority of the castle complex.
One of the first things you notice about Kumamoto Castle is its walls. There are several layers of walls, often creating a multi-level effect. There's also a number of turrets and other buildings standing atop the walls. This particular turret is one of the few buildings which survived the fire, making it an original. You can actually go inside and climb to the top for some views of the castle and its surroundings, though turret windows were clearly built for defensive purposes, not for good views. I was also able to go inside a reconstructed turret and a storehouse before passing through a large underground passage (an unusual feature) and emerging in front of the castle. If you're wondering about that samurai guy in the corner of the photo, there were a few employees walking around in traditional dress. The inside of the castle has a collection of items belonging to Kumamoto's former ruling families and some thing relating to the aforementioned rebellion. No pictures though, at least until you get to the viewing area at the top, which features excellent views of Kumamoto.
Right now, they're restoring the palace right next to the main tower (castle towers weren't especially great to live in). It's part completed recreation and part museum explaining the restoration process. I found it interesting and some of the fully restored rooms were quite spectacular.
Once I'd finished exploring the castle grounds, I set off on foot (stopping for a bit to chat with a nicer older man who wanted to practice his English), making my way to the Hosokawa-Gyobo Residence. They were a branch of Kumamoto's ruling family back in the day and had quite a mansion built. It's a good example of a high class samurai home and also traditional Japanese houses in general, especially if you've never been inside one. There are some rather unusual features as well. See the round window in this photo? Those are a Chinese design almost never seen in Japan and combining it with a Japanese shoji (paper) covering is quite unique.
Having hit all my major Kumamoto sites, I headed back to Fukuoka a bit early so I could do some sightseeing there as well. Though I did end up stopping at a touristy area on the way to the train station for a late lunch. Back in Fukuoka, I immediately made my way to Tochoji Temple, which was actually right across from my hotel. The temple itself isn't anything too special (though it has a nice pagoda), but a side area contains the largest seated Buddha statue in Japan (even larger than the one in Kamakura, which you can go inside). It only dates back to 1988, but is still impressive. Having heard about it online, I made sure to check behind the Buddha, where there's a passage that circles around back. It start outs with a bunch of pictures of demons torturing people in hell, then gets completely dark for a stretch, at which point you're supposed to try and find a handle to get good luck (I did something similar way back when I visited Nagano).
After that I checked out a few other shrines and temples. One even had a moment to the people credited with bringing the recipes for udon, soba, manju, and somen over from China long ago. I eventually reached the Folk Museum, which focused mainly on the area's annual festivals (one of which is coming up soon), and the Traditional Craft Corner, of which Hakata Ori (a traditional type of woven cloth) was the main focus. And, on my way to a shopping arcade for supper, stumbled across Kushida Shrine, where they're just starting the preparations for said festival. Too bad I won't be around for the parade. Speaking of that shopping arcade, one restaurant had a squid tank out front (guess what they served). I also snapped a picture of an amusing sign at the local Don Quixote store before calling it a night.

Tuesday (July 1st): Huis Ten Bosch
Japan has a number of theme parks, but Huis Ten Bosch has got to be one of the most unusual ones. An entire theme park based on Holland and the rest of the Netherlands? Sure the Dutch were one of the only countries allowed to trade with Japan during its period of isolation, but a theme park? Well, my tour book highly recommended it and, after some time spent looking over their web site, I decided that it would be worth a visit. As a note, it's actually much closer to Nagasaki than Fukuoka, but it's still easy enough to reach on the trains.
For anyone expecting a hookey little park with a couple of plastic windmills, that impression will be dispelled the moment you step off the train. And that building is just a hotel at the entrance. It's as if someone took an entire European town and dropped it in Japan. Heck, if it wasn't for all the Japanese writing, and the fact that most of the staff and visitors are Japanese, you could easily forget which country you're in.
Huis Ten Bosch presents an interesting mix of attractions. After getting a passport (like most Japanese amusement and theme parks, you can just get a cheaper admission ticket if plan to focus things like shopping and eating, rather than rides and shows) I went past a teddy bear museum and took a pleasant stroll down Flower Road, which really had the Holland vibe going. They even had cheese flavored ice cream. I then headed into a side area called Adventure Park, which is not so European. It is, however, fun. They've got a long zip line, a big multi-story wooden maze, and a high ropes course. I had so much fun on the basic version of the ropes course, that I paid extra to try the advanced version, which basically runs you through everything they've got. I made it through, though there were a couple of rough spots, like those tire swings.
After getting a good workout, I continued on to Attraction Town. It features a odd assorted of attractions including a special effects recreation of Holland's great flood (which was pretty cool), a small mirror maze, and several special movie presentations (at the one I went to, the walls, floor, and ceiling were mirrored, to surround you with the video). There's also a cafe where everything is carved from ice (which was unfortunately closed that day) and a much better One Piece ride than the one at J-World (there's a nice One Piece store too, for that matter).
I checked out a few of the attractions and snacked a bit, then crossed a canal and entered the Art Garden, which is full of roses and other flowers spread out in different patterns. My next stop was Domtoren, which offers excellent views of the entire park. As you can tell from the pictures, Huis Ten Bosch is huge. I walked everywhere, but they actually have buses and canal boats you can ride, you even even rent a bike (regular or multi-person) to get around easier.
Amsterdam City was nearby, and I stopped to listen to an Italian man named Luigi sing and play the piano. He's a nice guy and actually came over to talk to me after the show (being the only non-Japanese person in the audience, I kinda stuck out). He's said he's traveled all over the world and Japan is the best place he's found and that there's a lot of Italian boys who come to Japan to study and end up staying. He suggested I move to Japan as well, which is something I've considered... But anyway, for now I'll see how things go in Hawaii.
Getting back on track, Amsterdam City features a lot of shops and restaurants, along with an ice skating rink and the Gyaman Museum, which houses some of the fanciest glass work I've ever seen. There was also this little European Village, which was a fun spot to stop for a drink. Continuing on, I eventually came to Harbor Town, which is a part of the park that doesn't require admission (though I'm not entirely sure how you'd get there without going through the rest of the park). It features an extremely fancy porcelain museum (that room is a recreation of one from a European palace) and an old style ship you can ride, among other things. Too bad I couldn't have come about week later, as there were a bunch of ads up for an upcoming video game museum.
There was more to see in that area, but I headed back to the Art Garden for a bit to watch the Flower Parade first. Then I went to the furthest end of the park and Palace Huis Ten Bosch. It's an actual palace, and home to an upscale art museum.
Back in Harbor Town again, it was time to check out the park's other One Piece themed attraction. No, not Robo Franky (though that was cool), but the Thousand Sunny. For 1,000 Yen you can take a short cruise aboard Sunny. Though the draw isn't the cruise so much as getting to explore recreations of several sections of the ship and track down statues of all the crew members. There are also shops, both on and off the ship, with unique One Piece merchandise that you can't get anywhere else. So yeah, Huis Ten Bosch is the place to go for One Piece fans.
After dinner, I watched a bit of a dance show (a strange but entertaining mix of salsa, Broadway, and a number of other styles) then made it over to the one section of the park I had yet to visit, Thriller City. It's pretty much all haunted houses. Not really my thing, but I went through a couple just to take a look. They were well done, though I found them less scary and surprising than the ones at Busch Gardens' Halloween event. That said, nothing at in Thriller City or at Busch Gardens actually scared me (I'm extremely hard to scare) and almost nothing even startled me, so I might not the best judge.
By the way, Thriller City isn't the only area that lights up at night. It's pretty much the entire park, and it looks amazing. As you might have guessed from that last photo, I actually went back up Domtoren tower so I could get some nighttime pictures. By that point though, it was getting pretty late and I didn't want to risk missing the last train back to Fukuoka (though Huis Ten Bosch does have some very nice looking hotels) so after one last show I called it a night and head back towards the entrance.
I have to say, I was really impressed with Huis Ten Bosch. While the mix of elements (the main Dutch theme combined with things like One Piece, haunted houses, and rope courses) is a little odd, everything is very well done. In fact, I'd say that in terms of size and scale, number and quality of attractions, staff, and attention to detail, it's pretty much on the same level as a Disney park, something that not even Universal Studios or Sea World pull off on quite as many levels. Really, if you're ever on Kyushu, I'd highly recommend a visit to Huis Ten Bosch, it's an amazing park and has something for just about everyone.

Agh, I really wanted to do three days of travelogues (and even had the photos ready to go for the third) but I should have gone to sleep hours ago as is. Sigh... At least I'll have a head start for Monday.


7/2/2014 A one-off

Sorry for the one-off Blooper Reel comic. Regular story comics will resume Friday. I've just been getting really annoyed by people using what I dub the "modern debating" technique lately and got the idea for this comic stuck in my head. I made up an issue here to avoid any real life politics but keep in mind that what matters isn't whether May or Brendan is correct, it's how May reacts when Brendan disagrees with her idea.

Anyway, on to the travelogue. Unfortunately, it looks like I'm not going to be catching up today, but I'd say there's a decent chance of that on Friday or Monday.

Friday (the 27th): Iga Ueno
There are a couple of towns in Japan known for their historic connection to ninja, with related museums and buildings to tour. I've been wanting to go to one for ages but have never been in the right area. Well, I finally worked one of them into my travel plans. Iga Ueno was once home to the famous Igaryu ninja school. Before I begin I should probably mention that, while the main train station is called Igaueno (to differentiate it from Ueno in Tokyo), the town may be referred to as Iga or Ueno.
Anyway, there's a local train you need to take from Igaueno station and I could already tell that they were going to be milking the ninja thing a bit. And it makes sense, the ninja house and museum are the area's main attractions, though there's also a castle and a few locations related to a famous Japanese poet named Matsuo Basho.
Conveniently, the castle and ninja museum are located right near each other and you can get a combo ticket for both of them along with one other museum, which is what I did. The museum normally begins with a tour of the ninja house, but I had some time to kill before the next one started so I skipped ahead to the third hall, which focuses on the ninja lifestyle. Here, for example, is one kind of ninja outfit. Despite how often you see it on TV, they didn't usually wear black. The most common color was actually a dark blue since it blends into the night better and was also similar to what local farmers wore and the ability to disguise themselves was very important to the ninja. Another interesting ninja fact, they used to lay out colored grains of rice to send coded messages, though that was far from their only method.
After looking at the displays for a bit it was time for the ninja house tour. I know that sounds like a corny amusement park attraction, but this is actually an authentic house once lived in by a ninja family. It appears to be a normal farmer's house, but is riddled with secret compartments and passages. Here's the guide making a quick entrance through a revolving part of the wall, and here she's making an even quicker escape through a hidden bolt hole. And, of course, you have to have a sword hidden under a floor board. As a side note, the reason for the blurring in these photos is that she was moving really fast (opening that panel and grabbing the sword took all of a second at most) and, while photos were allowed, video was not.
After the tour, I moved down to the next part of the museum, which showcases the different equipment ninjas used such as these shoes which, unlike the old movie scene busted in Mythbusters, where used for crossing swamps, not water. And, of course, many different types of weapons. After that, I paid a few hundred yen extra to check out the ninja show, where members of a modern ninja clan (who focus on performing, not stealth missions) show off the use of various ninja weapons and combat techniques. Along with a few other tricks, like rolling a coin on an umbrella for luck.
Once I was done at the museum, I headed over to Iga Ueno Castle. The current castle was rebuilt in 1935 and houses a small museum with a very impractical samurai helmet. There's also some decent views from the top though, as far as Japanese castle go, there's nothing all that special about it.
Finally, I decided to check out the last destination on my combo ticket, the Danjiburi Museum, which focuses on a big festival held in the town every year. In addition to a parade of large portable shrines, the festival features a number of residents dressing themselves up as monsters. The video presentation on the festival had them scaring some babies, which was amusing, if a little mean. Anyway, it looks like a pretty big and interesting festival. Maybe I should try and go some time...
While it wasn't all that late, I had a long train ride back to Tokyo so I headed out after I left the museum, bringing an end to the Osaka and surroundings portion of my trip. It was a lot of fun, and I'm looking forward to what comes next...

Sunday (the 29th): On to Kyushu
As usual, not too much to talk about in regards to Saturday. I went to services and then met up with Poik, who had just arrived in Tokyo, again that night and we walked around Odaiba for a while.
Today, however, marked the start of the third (and last) long trip of my Japan vacation. As you might or might not know, Japan has four main islands. Hokkaido (in the far north), Honshu (the main island with Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, etc.), Shikoku (off the south eastern part of Honshu), and Kyushu (off the far south western end). Japan's other major region is Okinawa, but that's a collection of small islands. Anyway, I visited Shikoku for several days back in 2011, but other than that, all my time has been spent on Honshu. I've been wanting to see some other areas, so I decided to spend a week (well, six days) all the way down in Kyushu, with the city of Fukuoka as a base (side note, Fukuoka's main train station is Hakata, Fukuoka Station is in another area entirely).
Getting there from Tokyo actually isn't too hard. There are flights, of course, but it's only six hours on the Shinkansen (five if you take the fastest train, which a rail pass doesn't cover) thanks to the bridges connecting Honshu and Kyushu. I do plane flights much longer than that and Shinkansen tend to be much more comfortable anyway.
I arrived in early afternoon, found a locker for my bags (I had much better luck than in Osaka), and immediately hopped on another train going to Dazaifu, a small suburb (well, a couple of trains actually, and I had to walk between stations at one point). It's a fairly scenic place with a nice tourist street leading to its major attractions. Ume is the local specialty, and factored into many of the snacks and drinks that were for sale. Unless you went here anyway, but that is a cool looking Starbucks.
I took a brief detour off the path to see Komyozenji Temple. While the temple isn't all that special, it has a beautiful rock and moss garden out back, which is worth a visit.
Returning to the path, I continued on towards Dazaifu Tenmagu Shrine, the area's main attraction. It had some interesting statues out front such as this bull (I've seen similar ones at a couple other shrines this trip, but never before) and a kirin. In fact, there were a lot of interesting and different things about this particular shrine. For example, this overly large hand washing pavilion, blue omikuji, hanging gourds to seal away bad luck, and adding eyes to the lion statues (which I think makes them look creepy). The shrine itself is also rather nice to look at (and in very good condition for a building from 1591) and the whole front is open, letting you watch the priests bless groups of visitors.
If you're up for a little walk, there's a path behind the shrine which leads through an ume grove and a hydrangea field up to a small shrine whose most interesting feature is a tiny cave with a mini shrine inside. Back down the hill, there's also a nice treasure museum containing relics from throughout Dazaifu Tenmagu's history, a kiddy park, and the Kyushu National Museum (probably the most reflective building I've ever seen).
The museum is actually tucked away halfway up a mountain and you need to take a long covered escalator to get there. What I found particularly interesting is that the main focus is on ancient Japan. While most Japanese museums only go back about 1500 years at most, Kyushu National has a number of artifacts dating back to Japan's earlier periods such as the Jomon Period and Yayoi Period. Though I was a bit skeptical of some of items said to come from even earlier than that, labeled as being 15,000+ years old. Regardless, it's an extremely well done museum (with a good audio guide) that lets you see artifacts from and learn about time periods you usually hear very little about.
I spent quite a while in the museum before returning to downtown Fukuoka to check into my hotel at get something to eat. I ended up in Canal City, a big shopping mall notable for its interesting design and ramen stadium (like a small version of Yokohama's ramen museum), which was worth a walk through but didn't especially catch my interest (most of the shops are clothes). After that, it was time to rest up and get ready for the next day...


6/30/2014 More fun in Osaka

I'm in Fukuoka right now on the island of Kyushu. It'll be here for most of the week before returning to Tokyo for the last few days of my trip. Only a little over a week left now... Anyway, the travelogue is running a bit behind, let's see if I can catch it up at least partially.

Wednesday (the 25th): Mt. Koya
I got an early start, heading off to Mt. Koya. It's a place I actually planned to visit with my mom when she visited me in Japan years back, but we ended up changing our plans so we could see the Geisha show in Kyoto. Anyway, I've been looking for an opportunity to go and it finally came.
Mt. Koya is a mountain about an hour and a half away from Osaka. It's a religious site (primarily Buddhist though, this being Japan, there's some Shinto mixed in as well) hosting a staggering 120 (or so) temples, though I heard that, at its peak, that number was in the thousands. Anyway, it's the base for Japanese Shingon Buddhism with a history dating back approximately 1,200 years when the first temples and monasteries on the mountain were founded by a monk named Kukai. Though now there's a small town there as well. To get to Mt. Koya, you need to take rather scenic train ride out into the country then take a cable car up the mountain (well, technically there are roads for cars and tour buses too). After that it's a short bus ride to the town. Once you're there, however, everything is within easy walking distance.
While visiting all the different temples could take days, I naturally focused on the more famous ones. I started out by heading towards Okunoin, but I didn't take the bus all the way there. Instead, I got off at the start of the Sando, a 2 kilometer path leading to the temple which passes through a forested graveyard (Japan's largest, with over 200,000 graves, tombs, and mausoleums). They come from many periods in history, represent famous nobles and lowly peasants, and are built in a number of different styles. If you've got nothing against walking through a graveyard, it's really scenic, even in the rain (which started when I was around two thirds of the way down the path). Fortunately I was prepared and kept going. There are actually a few different temples at the end of the path. The first isn't especially notable, though this long line of Buddhist deity statues was kind of cool. There were also these giant mounds of Jizo statues (there interior is hollow, by the way, with a little tomb or shrine or something inside).
You can't actually go in Okunoin itself (its where Kukai is believed to still be alive in endless meditation), but Torodo temple is right there as well, and it's certainly worth the visit. Unfortunately, pictures weren't allowed anywhere near it but it's known as the lantern temple and is filled with burning lanterns, giving the interior a really great atmosphere. A couple of the lanterns are said to have been kept burning for 1,000 years and the long halls of lanterns are both beautiful and impressive.
By the time I finished looking around, the rain had died down a lot (though it picked up again later in the day) so I started walking back along the trail, spotting a few interesting things I missed the first time through. The trail goes right to the edge of the town, so I decided to stop for lunch before continuing. Being a Buddhist area, the traditional food of Mt. Koya is vegetarian (though many restaurants do serve meat dishes as well).
Nearly right across the street from the restaurant was Karukayado Temple, which stands out due to its bright colors. The inside has a series of paintings (with explanations in Japanese and English), telling the story of the monk Karukaya and how his son came to serve under him, never knowing the truth of their relationship. Speaking of paintings, you see a lot of them in the temples on Mt. Koya. Shingon Buddhism places heavy importance on art (more so than most other Buddhist sects), so the number of statues and paintings is increased accordingly. Especially the paintings, which tend to be pretty uncommon in Japanese temples.
On the way to my next stop, I passed a rather strange pagoda or pavilion or something. It seemed to be fairly new and was rather odd, to say the least. The statues were all white marble, rather than the usual wood, metal,or gray stone, and there were lots of bright colors and flashing lights. Not to mention a dark underground passage that was set up almost like something you've expect from a carnival or amusement park. It was weird, but worth a look (especially since it was free).
Moving on, I came to Kongobuji Temple. It's the main temple in the area, though it's not as old as some, dating back to 1593 (though the current building was constructed in 1863). From a tourism standpoint, it's best known for the impressive painted sliding doors, which line many of the rooms. I couldn't photograph them, but I could photograph the rock garden, which is the largest in the country and is quite impressive in its own right.
I then walked a short distance to the Danjo Garan area, which houses several famous temples and other structures. That pagoda, by the way, contains not one, not three, but four giant golden Buddha statues (actually, I could swear I counted five, but the pamphlet says four) along with a number of nice paintings. I also visited the nearby Reihokan museum, which holds a variety of statues and other treasures belonging to various temples, and happened across a small temple containing these odd red colored Jizo statues. They're supposed to grant prayers for healing, which is probably why there's so many offerings. Finally, I finished my tour of Mt. Koya at the twin mausoleums of Tokgugawa Ieyasu and Hidetada (extremely important figures for those of you who know your Japanese history).
While it was a little bit of a temple overload, Mt. Koya is a beautiful places with a lot of amazing temples. I managed to hit all the major sights in a day though, like I said before, there are many more temples if you want to be thorough. Also, you can arrange to spend a night at one of them, complete with a traditional meal and the option to join the monks for chants, devotions, and the like.
But that didn't quite end my day. Back in Osaka, I met up with, not one of my friends who lives in the area, but forum member Poikspirit (who you may remember from various bonus comics), who just happened to be passing through on a tour at the time. So we got to meet in real life and hang out for a while in Dotonburi, which was a lot of fun.

Thursday (the 26th): Finishing Up Osaka
I'd originally planned to go to the town of Igaueno and went so far as to board the first train I'd need to take to get there. Unfortunately, about half way to my next station they had to shut down the line for a while (a rare but not unheard of event). By the time they expected it to be up and running again, I'd end up getting to Igaueno far later than I wanted to. So, since I could still get back to Osaka fairly quickly, I decided to swap around my Thursday and Friday plans. Wish I'd known earlier so I could have slept in a bit, but oh well...
Eventually, I arrived at Kaiyukan, the famous Osaka Aquarium. And it's famous for a reason. It's a very large and very nice aquarium with a large variety of fish and other creatures.
One of the first sections was actually devoted to Japanese forests, which is where I learned that, though cute, river otters are not easy to photograph. Whether on land or underwater, they just do not stay still. These little fresh water crabs, on the other hand, were much easier. Speaking of hard to photograph creatures, this sea otter wasn't much better. Though he wasn't running anywhere, he wouldn't stop spinning (once again, cute and fun to watch, but difficult to photograph). Oh, if you're wondering why that movie is in black and white, something about the lighting for his tank made everything in my original video green (the night vision goggle effect). Compared to that, I think black and white looks better.
Moving on to fish, here's a blowfish (one of the infamous Japanese fugu, I believe) and a collection of fish from the Great Barrier Reef (they had a number of tanks based on different spots around the world). Side note, fish aren't easy to photograph either. You really need to get a good underwater camera and dive down there with them. Is is bad that I occasionally caught myself thinking how some of those fish would taste? I think that's a rather Japanese thing to do...
Now for some other ocean creatures. We've got squid, Japanese king crabs (while you might not be able to tell from the picture, those things are several feet tall), and this creepy little thing (I couldn't read the sign). Then there was the jellyfish exhibit. Lots of lots of jellyfish of different kinds under different types of light. Here's one that looks like a Metroid (it's extremely tiny, BTW), and here's a cool one that has its own lights.
The next section was arctic (or antarctic), with penguins and these very cute and chubby seals, which are even cuter in the right setting. That was followed by a fish (well, ray and shark) petting area. Then, finally, a section based on rainforests. A little off theme maybe, but nice. And I finally found one thing in the aquarium which presented no difficulties for photographers. Isn't it cute? I think a sloth would make a cool pet... On the other hand, this monkey was at least as hard to photograph as the otters. It's almost like someone has been slipping it caffeine.
By the time I got out of the aquarium, I was pretty hungry so I stopped in the shopping center next door. It had a pretty nice collection of restaurants, along with an ice cream stand. As I was ideally browsing the flavors, I spotted seaweed, which seemed like a good target for my hobby of trying weird Japanese ice cream. But then I saw this one... The English translation isn't very good though, shirasu are a very small fish that's used in Japanese cooking (often dried on its own or sometimes added to a soup or salad). So, against my better judgement, I decided to give it a shot. Actually, it wasn't that bad. It was certainly salty, but so are some other more normal flavors like sea salt and salted caramel, and the fishy taste wasn't too strong. At least so long as you didn't get one of the occasional little frozen fish that were in there (yes, really). Still though, while I won't be adding it to my list of favorite ice cream flavors, it really wasn't that bad. I mean, I could eat the entire thing without a problem, which is more than I can say for one of the wasabi ice creams I got in the past. On a side note, while I didn't try it, I passed a stand later in the day which had jellyfish flavor.
After a late lunch, I made my way to Den Den Town, Osaka's equivalent of Akihabara. And just like in Akihabara, you can expect to find lots of stores selling games, figurines, CDs, DVDs, assorted anime and manga goods, and general electronics, along with arcades, maid cafes, and other otaku establishments. So, how do the two areas stack up? Well, I might be a bit biased but I have to give the edge to Akihabara. For one, it's bigger than Den Den Town and more stores means more selection. I also wasn't especially fond of Den Den Town's layout (Akihabara is better to stroll around in). That said though, Den Den Town is still pretty awesome. I spent a lot more time there than I planned and found good deals on a number of rare CDs I'd been wanting. If you're in Osaka, and into that kind of stuff, it's certainly worth a visit.
I ended the day with one last trip to Dotonburi, where I did an all you can eat (for a certain amount of time) yakiniku (grilled meat) restaurant. While I've gotten yakiniku in the past, this is the first time I actually grilled my own meat (normally I go in a group and someone more experienced takes the lead). Fortunately, between watching others and using a regular grill back home, I didn't have any problems and it was another great meal in Osaka. I'm gonna miss the food here...

Hmm... I really wanted to get at least one more day done (finishing my Osaka trip), but both of the above write-ups ended up being pretty long and I need to get an early start in the morning so I need some sleep. Maybe I'll be able to catch things up on Wednesday...


6/27/2014 Fun in Osaka

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Monday (the 23rd): Osaka Highlights
I didn't get to see all that much of Osaka the previous day, so I decided to try and make up for it. Before I left my hotel though, I happened to glance at the emergency sign. What exactly is the "Escape Traps" bit marked on there? Do I go to that spot to escape from a trap or do I have to escape from traps if I go there?
Anyway, my first stop was the Osaka Museum of History. It traces Osaka's history from when it hosted Naniwa Palace (long gone) as a capital city, though its development into a major port, and up to more modern times. It's interesting and has a decent amount of information in English. There are some artifacts from the various times periods, but quite a lot of the space is devoted to recreations and models.
After finishing the museum, it was only a short walk to Osaka Castle. While the castle was originally built in the late 1500's (and the site held a major temple prior to that), like many old Japanese buildings, it had a tendency to get burned down. The current Osaka Castle is a recreation of the main tower portion, which was built in 1931. You can get some decent views from inside, but the interior of the castle is mostly devoted to a museum focused on two things. The first is Hideyoshi Toyotomi (successor to Oda Nobunaga), the first warlord to unite all of Japan, and the one who had the original Osaka Castle built. The second is The Summer War, a massive battle fought for control of the country after Hideyoshi's death. It's pretty interesting history and, even if you haven't studied the period, you may recognize some of the key figures from various anime, manga, and games.
The area around the castle is also home to a shrine, a couple of interesting looking buildings (though you can only see them from the outside), and a garden composed primarily of ume trees. After getting some surprisingly good karaage (Japanese style fried chicken) at a nearby stall and exploring the area, I set off for my next destination.
Shitennoji Temple holds the distinction of being the first state-established Buddhist temple in Japan, having been founded by an imperial prince in 593 AD, though none of the original buildings have survived (the majority are from the 17th century, though a few date back a good bit more). Naturally, I couldn't take photographs inside, but the temple buildings are home to some large golden Buddha statues and a number of impressive paintings depicting the Buddha's life as well. Also notable, is that you can actually enter and climb that pagoda in the photo. It's the first Japanese pagoda I've seen that I could go inside. Unfortunately, the interior is thoroughly modern, which was a little disappointing. The temple complex is fairly large and also contains a graveyard (with some hill like structures I hadn't seen before), a pond full of turtles (which are fun to watch), and a small but pretty garden.
My final stop for the day was Spa World. It's a onsen (hot springs) theme park, kind of like Oedo Onsen in Tokyo and Yunessun in Hakone (both of which I've visited and written about before). They have two large onsen areas, each based on a different part of the world. Naturally, I couldn't photograph them, but you can see some pictures on their web site. I went to the European baths (which are for men in even numbered months and women in odd, while the Asian baths are the opposite) which included baths and saunas based on Greece, Rome, Spain, and Finland, among others. A few of the baths had various things added to the water (my favorite was the herb bath, which had a really nice scent) but most were more about the decor than anything else. My favorite was Finland, where they had individual tubs with tons of tiny bubbles coming out from below, though the waterfall bath and the baths where you could just lie back in shallow water were pretty cool as well. As for the saunas, most were fairly ordinary though there was one where you're supposed to rub yourself with salt while you sit inside. That was different, though not something I was overly fond of. Spa World also has a more normal pool area as well (included with admission), which includes a lazy river and a couple of good water slides (though you have to pay extra for those). Naturally (if you're used to Japanese bathing, at least), the pool area is mixed gender and requires swimsuits while the onsen baths are separated and done in the nude. Outside of the water, there's an amusement area and some restaurants too (though nothing like what they have at Oedo Onsen). I ended up eating at an okonomiyaki place there before calling it a night. This time, I got a beef okonomiyaki done modern style (which means egg noodles are added to the mixture). Gotta say, I think Osaka is starting to give me a taste for Okonomiyaki...

Tuesday (the 24th): Kurashiki
Today marked the first of my day trips outside of Osaka. My destination? Kurashiki, a small city about an hour away. After a quick walk around the major shrine, I headed straight for the Bikan distract. It's the historic merchants' section of the city and is filled with old homes and storehouses (dating back to the 17th century), many of which have been turned into museums, restaurants, and shops. One thing about Bikan compared to other similar type areas I've been to in Japan is its size. There's quite a number of very picturesque old streets to explore, and the occasional visitor in traditional dress enhances the atmosphere. It's probably the nicest old town area I've been to in Japan, and a lot of fun to visit.
I spent a while exploring, stopping at a place that made its own gelato along the way (I got black sesame and drgonfruit flavors, both very good). Eventually, I decided I should probably start heading towards the museums on my list. That lead me towards a different part of Bikan, which follows and old canal and is even more scenic as a result.
There are a ton of museums in the area. Many are focused on local history and/or items, but there's also museums focused on art, various local celebrities (including a couple of manga artists and a baseball player), and more. I saw the History Museum (which didn't really have much, but was free) the moved on to the Ohara Museum of Art. Its primarily collection is European in origin. It's a nice museum but, like with all art museums, your enjoyment will depend greatly on how much you like the art itself. I thought a lot of the impressionist pieces were quite good (and some were by very famous artists like Monet), but was much less of a fan of the cubist and modernist pieces (one piece of modern "artwork" was literally just a tarp laying on the ground).
After taking a lunch break, I moved on to the Folkcraft museum. It was a favorite. For one thing, you get to walk all through a nice old storehouse, which is fun in its own right. But it's also filled with all sorts of interesting furniture, pottery, weaving, glass, and other items. Personally, I enjoyed it much more than the art museum.
I also stopped by the Rural Toy Museum (which didn't allow photos), but contains quite a large collection of old Japanese dolls and figures, tops, kites, and the like. It's small but densely packed and I had fun looking around inside. Finally, I stopped by Ivy Square (the area around an old factory (now a hotel). It has some shops and museums of its own, and my ticket from the Ohara Museum of Art also included admission to a museum there, which featured the work of the Japanese painter who helped found the museum. His stuff I liked. An interesting fusion of European and Japanese, in many cases.
By the time I finished there, a lot of things were getting ready to close for the day, and it was starting to rain a little, so I got a train back to Osaka and headed to Dotonburi for supper. I was in a sushi mood, so I found a good kaitenzushi (conveyor belt) place. I also walked around the area a bit more. Speaking of which, this sign is rather famous (to the point where it's even shown on the Osaka tourist map). If you're curious, Glico is a candy company (makers of Pocky, among other things) whose headquarters is in Osaka. Naturally, they have a store nearby. But I think most people just seek the sign out for a photo op.

Well, that'll do it for today. Hopefully I'll be able to catch back up over the coming week.


6/27/2014 Not again...

Sigh... It was so nice being caught up on the travelogue. But I'm afraid I'm going to have to fall a couple days behind again. It all started with Monday's update. See, when I first went to upload it I couldn't seen to do so no matter what way I tried. Turns out the internet at my hotel in Osaka has something blocked (I'm not entirely sure what) that prevents my web editor and a few other programs from getting access to the internet. It also manages to block a handful of web sites, including the admin panel for my web host, which meant I couldn't manually upload the files either. Long story short, I stayed up really late trying different things until I finally found a solution (paying $5 to access a public wi-fi service). Not only did that mess leave me without any time to stay caught up on my photo sorting and editing, it also left me pretty tired and with far less sleep than I would have liked. Then there were yesterday and today. Good days, and no real problems, but I got back fairly late both times, leaving me with limited time to try and catch up, time that was mostly occupied with some work related stuff that came up. And, due to fatigue from staying up late on Monday, I didn't want to stay up especially late to try and catch back up. So, at this point, I don't have the travelogue entries or even the photos done and I really need to get to sleep if I want to stick with tomorrow's itinerary. So, no travelogue entries. If I have time, I might try to finish and post them tomorrow. If not, they'll be up on Friday and I'll catch back up as I can. Sorry.


6/23/2014 North to south

And we're done with the little Omega Ruby / Alpha Sapphire bit and back to the main story. And now for the travelogue...

Friday (the 20th): Oirase Stream
More than any other day I've had so far on this trip, time was a factor today since there were only several buses going to and returning from my destination (the hiking trail alongside Oirase Stream). I had everything worked out very carefully to ensure I'd get there at a decent time and wouldn't miss the last bus back when I was done. So naturally it was the one day my alarm doesn't work. Seems that, in the middle of the night, my cellphone connected to a different network but screwed up the time and date sync and, as a result, got them wrong didn't realize it was time to play the alarm. I woke up an hour later than I needed to, missing the train I'd wanted to take and, as a result, making it impossible to catch the first bus. I wasn't happy but, after some quick internet research, I determined that I could still get there in time to catch the second bus. It'd drastically reduce my hiking time, but I might be able to complete the trail and, if not, there were bus stations along the way so I wouldn't get stranded even if I ran out of time.
Anyway, I eventually made it to the start of the Oirase Stream trail (or the end, depending which direction you go). Oirase Stream is more of a river in my opinion and runs out from Lake Towada. Both the stream and the lake are rather popular destinations, especially in the falls when the leaves are changing color, but unfortunately the trains don't stop anywhere close., you have to take a fairly lengthy bus ride from one of two different train stations to get there. The entire trail runs around 13 kilometers (~8 miles). I had planned on giving myself a leisurely 5 hours to finish, though I doubted it would take more than 3. Instead, I ended up with around 2 1/2 so I was really rushing, alternating between a fast walk and a jog without a single rest stop (other than brief pauses to take pictures). It turned what would have normally been a rather easy trail into a bit of a speed and endurance test. But anyway...
I started off at Yakeyama, which is the end of the trail furthest from the lake, and proceeded to follow Oirase Stream back towards it source. The trail is mostly flat, and none of the slopes are especially steep. You're also often, though not always, near the road, though it's not an especially busy one. As a side note, while it's pretty enough with the stream and forest, that first section of the trail between Yakeyama and Ichigedo is both the longest and least scenic stretch. Things start to pick up at Ichigedo (a large rock slab supported by a tree). The scenery gets more diverse (especially the stream) and, a bit further down, you start to hit the waterfalls. And there are a lot of waterfalls of all different kinds, fourteen according to my tour map. Though some were small enough it's hard to say if they really count. More nice views of the stream as well, of course. One of the last (and best) waterfalls is Choshi Great Falls. I had been nervously keeping an eye on my watch the entire hike but by the time I reached Choshi I knew for certain I was almost there and doing ok. In fact, I reached Lake Towada with around 20 minutes to spare so I was pretty pleased with myself. There's actually a town on the other side of the lake where you can stay, take ferry rides around the lake, and the like. But for me, I had to catch the last bus back to the train station so I could return to Sendai.
All in all, it was a a nice and very scenic hike and, despite the length, extremely low intensity (unless you're rushing like I was). I'm sure it's spectacular in the fall, though I've heard it's far more crowded then, while for me on a weekday in the off season, there were only occasional other hikers, with the odd cluster at the major waterfalls.
As a side note, if you don't care for hiking and just want an overview on your way to Towadako, you can see many of the waterfalls and other scenic spots from the bus (it even announces them and stops for a few seconds so you can get a good look).

Sunday (the 22nd): Welcome to Osaka
Nothing much to say about Saturday. I returned to Tokyo, went to services, and then went out to dinner with a friend at a rather hard to find but very nicely decorated British pub. For future reference, the Ebisu section of Tokyo is a good nightlife and restaurant area.
Sunday morning, I was off again, this time heading south to Osaka for 5 - 6 days. Osaka is one of Japan's major cities (alongside Tokyo and Kyoto) and is about three hours south of Tokyo (30 or so from Kyoto) on the Shinkansen. While I passed by it during a day trip when I visited Kyoto, I'd never been to the city itself. But I'd heard a lot of good things about it and it also made a convenient hub for some other places I wanted to see.
Since I'd had a lot of late nights recently, I decided to prioritize getting a decent amount of sleep over an early departure. As a result, I didn't arrive in Osaka until early afternoon. Add in time spent walking around Osaka station trying to find a coin locker to stash my bag (they were all taken so I eventually just gave up and carried it for the rest of the day) and a bit more time spent trying to figure out where the heck my first destination was (the directions the tour book gave weren't as clear as they'd seemed when I copied them) and I knew I wouldn't be getting too much sightseeing in that first day. Anyway, my fist stop was the Umeda Sky Building (if the guide had just said "the cool looking building with the big hole in the roof" it would have saved me a lot of time) to get a view of the city. Though I first stopped at the ground floor, which features a couple of small but nice gardens and a neat old Japan style dining section. I saw a few people lined up for one particular restaurant which specialized in okonomiyaki (a pancake of sorts made of cabbage, yam, ginger, bonito, and other ingredients), one of Osaka's specialties. I hadn't eaten yet, so I decided to join in and give it a try. Unfortunately, the line turned out to be much longer and much slower moving than it first appeared and I ended up waiting for over an hour. If I'd known from the start it'd take that long, I wouldn't have done it but, after a while, I'd waited too long to give up. Anyway, the restaurant must be rather famous. It was small but the walls were plastered with photos, business cards, and the like from previous diners. I'd only had okonomiyaki a couple times in the past and wasn't especially impressed, but the chicken one I got there was pretty good.
After my very late lunch, I went up to the Floating Garden (what they call the observatory on top of the building, even though there's no actual garden up there) and got some nice views of Osaka. For the most part, the buildings aren't as tall or as densely packed as Tokyo, giving it a bit of a different look. The Floating Garden is apparently also billed as a popular spot for couples, featuring several things just for them, including this little deck where you can hang a lock (after your buy it, of course) to show your love.
By the time I finished taking in the views, it was too late to hit any more attractions, so I decided to check into my hotel so I could finally ditch my bag and then go walk around a bit. I had a couple areas marked down as good places to walk and both were in the same area so, after stopping at the hotel, I took the subway to Namba station. From there, I meant to go to Den Den Town (Osaka's version of Akihabara), but got turned around coming out of the station and ended up heading towards Dotonburi instead. Since that was the other walking area on my list, I decided to just go with it.
One thing I hadn't done was make a note of why I'd thought Dotonburi would be an interesting area to visit and I really couldn't remember any of the details. At first, as I was walking past a large number of love hotels (hotels where couples can go to spend a few hours to a whole night together), I started to wonder what I'd been thinking at the time. Though they were rather interesting to see. Most of the ones I've seen in Tokyo are much more subdued in design but the ones here in Osaka follow the classic love hotel style of being as garish as possible. Actually, that last photo might have been a normal hotel, it was hard to tell...
Anyway, after a bit of walking I reached Dotonburi proper and realized why I'd wanted to check it out. It's a pedestrian dining and nightlife area next to a river and a generally fun place to walk around, especially at night. Osaka is known for its food, and Dotonburi is clearly the place to go to experience it all. It was one of those places where finding a good looking restaurant it easy. The problem is deciding which of the many of them to eat at. Since I'd already had okonomiyaki for lunch, and I can't eat takoyaki (little balls with batter, octopus, and other ingredients), I decided to try Osaka's third specialty, kushikatsu, which is basically fried and lightly breaded stuff on a skewer. And really, how can you go wrong with that? The restaurant I went to had quite the impressive selection of meats, vegetables, and other items. A few of my favorites included the sweet potato, red ginger, and chicken meatballs. As a note, kushikatsu uses a different and much lighter batter than tempura (Japan's more well known type of fried food). The dipping sauce (while still soy based) is different as well (and better, in my opinion).
While I didn't get to see too much yet, the day still made for an enjoyable introduction to Osaka and its cuisine. I'm really looking forward to the rest of my time here.

Random Japan Comment: The Osaka Difference
Osaka has a reputation from being different than the rest of Japan in a number of ways. Here are a few of the more obvious ones.
-People in Osaka stand on the right side of escalators and climb on the left side, the opposite of everywhere else. Why? Just to be different?
-While a lot of Japanese people (especially women) dye their hair, nearly all of them go with a dark mahogany red. In Osaka, however, brighter shades of red and even blonde are relatively common sights for both men and women.
-Osakans have a rather famous accent (sort of the the Japanese equivalent of the US's southern drawl). If you don't know Japanese, you may not notice the difference. But if you do, it can throw you off at times.
-Osakans are said to be louder and more outgoing than your average Japanese person. While I don't know if you'll really notice that just walking around the city, having met a number of Osakans myself, I can say that actually does seem to be the case.


6/20/2014 Up North

The weekly Blooper Reel comic is up for everyone who votes (use the TWC button on the left). In other news, we'll be returning to the regular PV story on Monday. Also, I made a small addition to the end of Tuesday's travelogue entry, if you're curious.

Wednesday (the 18th): Yamadera
As I previously mentioned, I got a JR Pass on this trip (which I'll explain in detail in a future RJC) so I want to take advantage of it and spend some time away from Tokyo, seeing parts of Japan I've never been to. While my bigger trips will take place over the next two weeks, I decided to start out with a smaller one and spend three days up north in the Sendai area. That said, I don't really plan to do much of anything in Sendai itself. I went there a couple of times in the past (way back during my first stay in Japan) and saw all the major sites, but it made a convenient base for the places I did want to visit.
Thanks to the rather new Hayabusa and Komachi Shinkansen (which are some of Japan's faster trains, running at around 200 miles per hour), going between Tokyo and Sendai is a faster trip than it was back then (less than 90 minutes, depending on which train you take). So I arrived in Sendai pretty early, stowed my bags in a locker at the station, and then hopped on another train going to Yamadera.
Yamadera is a place I've been meaning to visit for years (since my first time in Japan) but just never got to. It's a small town nestled amidst the mountains, made famous by its temples. If you take a close look at this photo, you might be able to pick a couple of them out. To help you out, here's a different photo I took of the town while hiking later in the day. See that cluster of buildings hanging on the side of the mountain? Those are the temples. Well, most of them. There's actually a temple and a shrine at the bottom of the mountain where the trail starts. It had a rather interesting looking Buddha statue, which people seemed to like rubbing (for luck I suppose). There's 1,000 steps leading up the side of the mountain, which pass through the forest and by numerous small temples, statues, carvings, and the like. Some of the buildings really do hang over the side of the mountain, but they offer some great views as a result (fortunately, despite the clouds and fog, it didn't rain that day).
While none of the temples are especially spectacular aside from their setting, many of them have some odd or unusual aspect that makes them a bit different from the norm and Okunoin (at the very top) features a nice large Buddha statue (that you can't photograph). The area as a whole though is very scenic, between the forests, the temples, and all the flowers tended by the monks.
I made good time on the hike and got back down with tons of time left so, after a quick lunch, I headed to a nearby hiking trail I'd seen on the map. This one was clearly less popular. It was overgrown and I didn't run into a single person along the way. It mostly runs through the forest along the lower part of the mountain and past a few old ruins. In my opinion, this was the only particularly interesting part. You can see part of a small Buddhist section carved into the rock on the edge of that picture, but what I liked was this tiny hidden shrine, that only comes into view when you're right in front of it.
I still had plenty of time after finishing that trail, so I headed for another hiking route (stopping at an art museum I passed along the way). This one was on the opposite side of the town so I was able to get some different views (it's where I took that picture earlier which shows the temples on the mountain above the town). It was also a lot more fun than the previous hike since there were parts where you had to climb over and even crawl through some large rocks.
After that, it seemed like a good time to call it a day and head back to Sendai to check into my hotel and get something to eat. On that note, I've mentioned before how strange Japanese pizzas can be, but this might be one of the weirdest. If you can't read the Japanese, it's called the Americana and it's got mozzarella, ketchup, salami, and french fries. Ick...

Thursday (the 19th): Tazawako and Kakuodate
I had two stops planned for today, since they were just 15 minutes apart on the train. The first is Lake Tazawa (or just Tazawako, ko meaning lake). The lake itself is a short bus ride from the station. As you can probably tell from the picture, they rent boats, but one of the more popular things to do is rent a bicycle and take the 20 kilometer (12 1/2 mile) ride around the lake, which is what I was there for.
Once again, the weather looked pretty dodgy but I was lucky and it didn't rain. Unfortunately, only a few parts of the lake have an actual bike path, most of the time I had to ride on the road. But there was very little traffic so it wasn't too bad and I got to see some nice houses and rice paddies along the side of the lake. About a quarter of the way around, I came across a small shrine with a nice hand washing fountain. Around the halfway mark, I reached another shrine and a statue of Tatsuko, a girl who, according to legend, was turned into a dragon and became the guardian of the lake. The rest of the ride lacked any notable landmarks, but there were some nice views and it was, all in all, a pleasant way to spend the morning.
After returning to the train station, I continued on to the next stop, Kakunodate. It's a town which was once home to a large number of samurai. A number of their houses still remain (many owned by their descendants), mostly along a scenic tree lined street. As a side note, a lot of those are sakura (Japanese cherry) trees and there's even a 1 1/2 mile path by the river lined entirely with them. Unfortunately, sakura blossoms bloom in the spring, but I imagine Kakunodate would be quite the spectacular place to view them if you're there during the right time of year.
Anyway, a number of the samurai houses have been turned into museums. My first stop was the Ishiguro house, the oldest and largest of the samurai houses. The family still lives there, so only one section of it is open (most of the samurai houses are actually large compounds with multiple buildings and gardens). There's a little tour, which was all in Japanese (I could understand maybe a third of it), and also a display of some things belonging to the family. The Aoyagi house was next, and it was favorite. They've opened the entire area up to the public so you get to see just how large and grand these houses can be. The Aoyagi clan was the most prestigious of the samurai families in Kakunodate and it really shows. Many of the buildings display pieces from the family's extremely impressive collection (which I sadly couldn't photograph) including weapons and armor, handicrafts, and even some more unusual items like phonographs and rare records. Honestly, it was a better collection than I've seen at a lot of normal museums. There's also a building designed to show off the town's local crafts.
In that respect, Kakunodate is primarily known for Kabazaiku, which involves peeling thin layers of bark from cherry trees and using it to line various objects. I learned more about it at the nearby Denshokan Hall museum While Kabazaiku supposedly dates back around 1,000 years, it gained popularity in Kakunodate about 200 years ago, as a side job for the samurai. The most popular products seem to be tea or pill cases (the bark helps keep the interior from becoming too dry or moist) but it also makes cool lamp shades and can be used for all sorts of items including boxes, trays, plates, and even furniture. All hand made and all very pretty.
After that I got a local specialty as a snack. Called miso kiritanpo, it's a rice paste (though not nearly as sticky or chewy as mochi) covered with a miso based sauce. Assuming you like the miso / soy sauce taste, it's pretty good.
Continuing on, I visited a few more samurai houses, including one built in a very old style, though the first two were really the best by far. I also stopped in the Tatetsu house. They were a merchant family, rather than samurai, and have an interesting little museum showing clothing, pottery, and other items used by their family in the past. There were a few other houses turned museums and regular museums I could have visited but it was getting towards closing time so instead I swung by a few local shrines and temples which were listed on my tourist map (since they don't have operating hours), though none of them especially stood out.
To wrap things up, I decided to get supper before leaving. A place on my tourist map looked interesting and I ended up with this large tofu meal. It's not all tofu (there's some pickled vegetables, egg, and a little bit of fish on there), but most of it is. There's the big block of fresh tofu in the upper left (which you sprinkle with salt and then dip in soy sauce mixed with ginger and green onions, the tofu and tofu skin filled miso soup, the piece of older stronger tasting tofu, the sweet piece of tofu, the tofu with ginger and hijiki, the soy milk skin (technically not tofu, I guess), and more. And, for the most part, it was quite good and made for an interesting way to end the day.


6/18/2014 Caught up!

With today's travelogue entries, I'm finally caught up to the present and I plan to stay that way for the remainder of the travelogue! So let's get to it.

Monday (the 16th): Fuji-Q Highland
You might notice that I skipped over Sunday. The reason being that I didn't do anything I haven't written about multiple times before. I browsed the big flea market at Oi-keibajo, strolled around Asakusa for a bit, and then hung out with a friend at Odaiba. It was a fun day but all stuff I've covered in-depth before. But here's one pictures of the sunset, taken from Odaiba.
I have a few things left on my to-do list in and around Tokyo, but many involve museums, which are closed on Mondays, so I decided this would be the day I finally go to Fuji-Q Highland. It's a theme park not too far from Mt. Fuji (in-case you couldn't figure that out from the name). I meant to go last year but never made it. Anyway, it's not too bad of a train ride from Tokyo and they also have a bus and park ticket package. Since this was the first day I could use my JR Pass (more on that in a future RJC), I opted for the train.
Fuji-Q Highland is somewhat off by itself out in the country. Which makes sense considering how much space is at a premium in Tokyo proper. Like many Japanese theme parks, you can either buy a cheap admission ticket and then pay for each attraction separately or buy a free pass, which gives you unlimited access to everything (and is the better deal by far unless you just plan on sitting around all day). Unfortunately, also like many Japanese theme parks, it closes kind of early (usually 5 or 6, depending on the day) and some of the rides could hit capacity and close their lines 90 minutes or more before that so getting there early is a really good idea.
Anyway, I got to the park, got my free pass, and headed off. One of the first things I came across is a hill for viewing Mt. Fuji. Unfortunately, all but the base of the mountain was wreathed in clouds so I couldn't see much. I did get a nice view of some of the park's roller coasters though. But the first attraction I tired (which also turned out to be my favorite) was the Ultimate Fort. Basically, the whole thing is a big puzzle challenge where you have to successfully clear the challenge in each section of the fort within a strict time limit to move onto the next one. Fail and you're kicked out. And you are going to fail. As of late January, the fort has had around 630,000 visitors and only two groups of people have successfully cleared all five stages, giving it an escape rate of around 1 in 100,000. So how did I do? Well, the first stage gives you a card and puts you in a prison like area. To get out, you need to find some extremely well hidden card readers. The first time you scan your card you're given a list of items to find. Other scans might give you an item, do nothing, or delete your inventory. If you can get all three items, then it's off to the secret door and onto the next stage. My first try was mostly spent trying to figure out what to do (while there are good English instructions, the readers are really well hidden) and I only found couple of readers and didn't get any of my items. My second time I had a better grasp of the situation and managed to track down quite a lot of readers (I found eight or nine of them, though I can only claim credit for two of those myself, I picked up the rest of the locations from watching other players) but couldn't seem to find my third item. By the third time, I knew the location of at least most of the readers and was able to get my three items in short order. Unfortunately, they don't call it the "secret" door for nothing and I ran out of time before I could find it. Ultimate Fort isn't something that's designed to be cleared on your first try (or probably your tenth or twentieth for that matter). I figure it would have taken me one or two more tries to clear the first level. But the remaining levels promise different challenges and few, if any, other players to learn from, really upping the difficulty. I have no idea how long it would have taken me to find several of those card readers by myself. But anyway, I loved it. Heck, I'd like to go back to Fuji-Q and just spend an entire day doing the Ultimate Fort to see how far I can make it. Someone really needs to build one of those in the US. Preferably near where I live.
Anyway, after three rounds and around 90 minutes I pulled myself away from the Ultimate Fort to check out the rest of the park. Actually, that brings to mind one common theme I saw in Fuji-Q, they really didn't keep the lines moving as fast as they could have. Judging by the time limit for the first level of the fort, the line length and speed, etc, I'm pretty certain they could have run two or even three groups in the time it took them to do one. Ditto with the roller coasters, where they were very determined to make sure you emptied your pockets, performed multiple seatbelt checks in a row, etc. They really should take a lesson from how Disney or most other US parks run their lines (while they're at it, copying Disney's Fast Pass system would be good too). But anyway, other than the fort there's a big haunted house (which I didn't go in), a couple kids' areas (one themed after Thomas the Tank Engine), and a lot of assorted rides. The main highlights for me (other than the fort) were the roller coasters. There's four big ones (though one was closed that day for maintenance), all of which either are or were world record holders. You've got Fujiyama (formally the world's tallest coaster, now the 8th), Dodonpa (formally the world's fastest, now the 4th, but with the fastest acceleration), Takabisha (the world's steepest coaster with a 121 degree drop), and Eejanaika (the one that was closed, a rare 4th dimension coaster with the world record for number of inversions). The lines were fairly long (despite it being a weekday) and, as I said before, rather slow, but the coasters are amazing. For anime fans there's also an Evangelion museum featuring original artwork, statues of various characters, and a couple of scale recreations.
On a humorous note, check out this sign. For those of you who can't read Japanese, it warns people that there's a chance of wild bears coming into the park (they live in the forests near Mt. Fuji) and says that, if you see a bear, you shouldn't wrestle or tackle it. You know, because those are the first things everyone thinks of when they encounter a bear.
So yeah, Fuji-Q is pretty awesome and I had a blast (though I'm glad I had a way to kill time while waiting in line, since there was a lot of that), but I wish they'd keep it open later and streamline the lines a bit, I would have liked to go on some of the rides again and have another go at the fort.
On the plus side, since it didn't stay open late, I had time to stop by Akihabara on my way back, though this time I was shopping for more practical stuff. For one thing, I was getting tired of my cellphone dieing on me halfway through the day. The battery clearly can't hold a charge as well as it did when I was here last year and I use it a lot for GPS, making plans with friends, keeping up with important e-mails, etc. So I wanted one of those portable battery packs you can plug a phone in for a quick charge. Also, it was with a bit of melancholy that I decided it's time to retire my backpack. It's lasted me for something like 12 years, though all my time in college and university, my teaching jobs (both in Japan and the US), and numerous trips (including Japan and New Zealand). It's comfortable and I like the design but it's been slowly wearing out for years and the other day one of the more important zippers started to rip off, ending its usefulness as my primary pack (though I may keep it as a beach bag or something). I spent quite a while trying to decide on a successor, eventually ending up with what's essentially the newer version of the same line, which features only a few changes (mostly for the better). I was actually seriously considering a different and fancier style, but in the end I was won over by the lighter weight and lower cost. We'll see how the this one works over the rest of this trip...

Tuesday (the 17th): A Look at Old Edo
I decided to start of the day with one of the museums on my list and, since I got off to a rather late start, I went to the closest one, which is actually just a short walk from the apartment I'm renting (how did I miss it last year?). Specifically, the Fukugawa Edo Museum (if you don't remember, Edo is the old name for Tokyo). The inside of the museum is a recreation of a small shopping and housing part of the city as it would have been a short time before the arrival of Commodore Perry (the one who forced Japan to open itself to open itself up to the outside world). The museum's recreation includes stores, a dock (many people would use boats to get around Edo due to all the rivers and canals), and even what was essentially a gated apartment complex. Here's a look inside a wood cutter's house (check out that saw) and here's an old time stove (those small lids cover parts where water can be heated, they're just the right size to put in a sake bottle so it can warm up while the food is cooking). And this is a soba maker's stall of sorts (despite the size, it's meant to to carried over a shoulder). While the museum is rather lacking in signs, there are volunteer guides to show you around. Mine spoke decent English and did a great job explaining the different structures and items. I also picked up a lot of interesting trivia. For example, that tower you saw in a couple of the pictures is to watch for fires but it actually only has windows on three of the four sides, to prevent the watchers from getting a view of the palace. Another interesting fact? People in the city tended to eat white rice as a sign of status, while those in the country ate brown rice. All in all, the museum is nicely done and and I found the entire experience quite interesting.
I spend the rest of the day shopping in Nakano Broadway, which was also fun, though for different reasons. But I've already written about it multiple times in the past so I think that'll do it for today.


6/16/2014 Culture and Pop-Culture

If anyone is curious, I plan to wrap up this little side series on either Wednesday or Friday and return to the main story right after that. Anyway, on with the travelogue.

Thursday (the 12th): J-World
It was another rainy day, so I wanted to do something indoors if possible. Last year, a little before I left Japan, I heard about a brand new indoor theme park based on Shonen Jump (the weekly manga magazine which runs many famous series such as One Piece and Naruto). I didn't get a chance to go then, so I decided to check it out.
It's in the fairly famous Sunshine 60 building in Tokyo's Ikebukuro area. I walked around Ikebukuro a bit last summer, though on the other side of the station. On the way to Sunshine 60 (note, half the signs are for Sunshine 60 and half for Sunshine City) I came across the area known as Otome road. It's a couple blocks (plus a few other stores scattered about the area) of anime, manga, and related merchandise stores. However, they're all highly geared towards a female cliental so you'll see a lot more posters of cute guys and a focus on romance and BL series (if you don't know what that stands for, I recommend not looking it up). There's also a lot of shops selling cosplay outfits and supplies, though once again mostly for girls. Oh, and on the subject of Japanese getting English wrong... You know, I actually kind of hope that isn't a typo. A cafe where everyone just rolls around would be hilarious.
Anyway, Sunshine 60 is a fairly large mall. Other than the usual collection of shops, it also contains J-World, another indoor theme park (that has a bit of a cat theme and appears to be geared towards little kids), an aquarium, a planetarium, and a viewing deck. Some of those looked like fun but the weather wouldn't have made for a good view and I'm planning to visit a really big aquarium a little later on this trip, so I focused on J-World. Like many Japanese theme parks, you can either buy a cheap entry ticket and pay individually for each attraction, or you can buy a more expensive pass that gives you unlimited access to all the rides and attractions.
J-World has several permanent attractions which are themed after popular Jump series both past and present. There's also temporary sections focusing on different series which change every so often, a midway sort of area featuring themed carnival games, and a couple of restaurants. The food actually isn't bad. It's a mix between stuff that the characters actually eat in the series (like various ramen from Naruto) and some other food that's just for fun.
I hit all the main attractions. The Naruto area has a fairly simple fun house / obstacle course type of thing where you follow instructions to find hidden switches, help Naruto charge his chakra, and the like. It's simple, though somewhat amusing if you like the series. One Piece has a carousel and a boat ride with a little bit of shooting thrown in, and this guy's occasional concerts. Dragon Ball Z also had two attractions. In one, you put on 3D glass, go into a small room, and get to shoot a couple kamehama alongside Goku. Way too short and simple, but the 3D affect was really impressive, making it look like Goku really was standing right next to me. The other DBZ attraction was my favorite one in the park and sends you to a recreation of the Red Ribbon Army base where you have to run around with a dragon radar and try to reclaim the Dragon Balls by finding and completing various puzzles and mini-games. You can fail that one, though there's a few more games than there are balls, so you can mess up a couple times and still be ok (I failed three games and still cleared the challenge with one or two puzzles to spare). Get all the balls, and you get to summon Shenron and save the world. As a nice bonus, each attraction has its set of collectables medals and you get a random one plus a sticker for riding/playing (only the first time if you have an unlimited pass). Even the midway games give you small prizes like stickers or badges if you lose, so they feel less like a waste of money than at most places.
While J-World is clearly designed with kids in mind, I still spent a fun couple of hours there and, judging by the other guests, I'm far from the only older Jump fan who enjoys J-World

Friday (the 13th): Sanno Matsuri and Jindai
My first goal for the day was to see the parade for Sanno Matsuri. It's a yearly festival at Hie Shrine in downtown Tokyo. I actually went to the festival last summer, but the parade and many of the other festive events only take place on even numbered years (it trades off with another famous Tokyo festival). The parade starts fairly early in the morning and runs four around 8 or 9 hours, winding around various parts of Tokyo. I decided to keep things easy and catch it at the start. While there were a number of things in the parade, the highlights for me were the mikoshi (portable shrines) and the group of shrine maidens.
After following the parade for a bit, I looked for the nearest subway station and headed off to my main destination for the day. Jindaiji Botanical Garden has been on my to-do list forever but I never got around to it. The closest I came was last year but, due to bad directions on the part of my tour book, I never found it. Well, this time I tracked it down ahead of time on Google Maps and made sure I knew exactly where to go. While figuring that out, I learned that was a fairly famous temple complex right next to it as well. Unfortunately, neither is all that close to a station so you either have to walk to take a bus. I opted for the former and had a pleasant stroll through one of Tokyo's surprisingly nice and quiet residential areas.
The first thing I reached was the Aquatic Garden, a free extension of the botanical garden focus on plants that grow in the water. At this time of year, irises are a big focus (Japanese gardens always like to feature a currently blooming flower). There was some aquatic animal life around too, to add to the scenery. The garden also included some rice paddies, which are used by local schools to teach the kids what rice farming is like.
Once I'd finished walking around the garden I followed a walking path towards Jindai Temple. It was a nice place, mostly lined with very picturesque soba restaurants. I didn't find the temples and shrines especially impressive (not bad, but not all that amazing ether), but the soba was pretty awesome.
After lunch, I discovered that what had been a bright and sunny morning was suddenly very overcast. I was ready for rain, but the hail caught me off guard a bit. I actually ended up ducking into another restaurant for dessert (manjyu made with soba flour) just to wait out the storm. And, sure enough, it showed up out of the blue but didn't last for very long so I was able to continue on to the botanical garden.
As far as botanical gardens go, Jindaiji is a pretty nice one. There are groves of various types of trees, some with fruit, and lots of different kinds of flowers. There's also a large rose garden filled with a wide variety of breeds (is that the right word?). That said, there wasn't really anything I hadn't seen before...at least until I went into the greenhouse. There are a lot of cool plants and flowers in there, including some rare variations and some rather strange and unusual flowers.
After that, I took another walk through the area and caught a train back to Tokyo proper. Got to say, I'm glad it finally made it out to the Jindai area, it was worth the trip. To wrap things up, here's a photo I took of the Skytree on the way back to my apartment.

Saturday (the 14th): A Festive Evening
This being Saturday, I naturally had services to go to. However, I had some time to kill once they ended in the late afternoon / early evening and I needed to change trains in Ueno, so I decided to leave the station and stroll around for a bit. While in Ueno Park, I happened across the local Toshugu Shrine (not to be confused with the shrine of the same name in Nikko). You know, I can't imagine that I somehow missed the place for so many years but, on the other hand, I think I'd remember all that gold... Nice carvings too.
After walking in Nikko for a bit, I headed back to Hie Shrine to catch the festivities (Sanno Matsuri runs all weekend). There were a lot of groups with mikoshi around, though I got there a bit too late to see what they were all for. And, as it got dark, the party got more underway. After all, it's not a Japanese festival without festival food and bon dancing, which made for an enjoyable way to wrap up the evening.

There we go. Almost caught up now!



6/132014 China and Japan

The new voter bonus comic is up, as usual. Now let's get right on to the travelogue entries. For the first time on this trip, I'm actually gaining some ground today. Hopefully, one or two more updates and I'll be totally caught up to the present.

Day 15 (Sun the 8th): A Last Stop
This was my departure date from China but there was one last thing on my Beijing list that I hadn't made it to, the Temple of Heaven. Fortunately, it opens early so I figured that I'd have time to run down there and look around for a couple hours before checking out and heading to the airport.
The Temple of Heaven is in a large park which actually opens a while before the temple and other buildings do so I walked around for a bit. It's a pretty place, and seems to be quite a popular spot for seniors looking to play games, do tai chi or other group exercises, and even play instruments.
There are a few things on the path leading up to the temple proper. The first is the the Round Altar, where the emperor used to offer sacrifices to heaven and pray for things like good weather for crops and the like. There are smaller altars scattered around as well, but the Round Altar is the main one. There's no more sacrifices, but you can get a nice view from the top. On a side note, there were these warning signs throughout the whole area. Why?  I don't know. Did someone get electrocuted in the past while using a cellphone during a storm? Would a cellphone actually increase the danger of a lightning strike?
Anyway, next up was the Imperial Vault of Heaven, sort of a smaller version of the temple which was mostly used for storage. From there, it's a nice walk across the lengthy Danbi Bridge to the Temple of Heaven itself. As you can see, it's quite the impressive building, inside and out. Both areas also featured some museum displays about the temple, the treasures stored there, and the like. Though I was in a bit of a hurry, so I didn't look at them as closely as I normally would have.
My last stop was the Hall of Abstinence, a small palace where the emperor would stay for three days to purify himself before the big temple ritual. Now, it has various artifacts from the temple and other buildings on display.
While I wish I'd have had time to go a bit more slowly, I'm glad I went. The Temple of Heaven itself is a beautiful building and rather unique in its architecture compared to everything else I've seen in China and I enjoyed people watching in the park.
After that it was back to the hotel to check out and then to the subway to make my way to the Beijing airport. As a note, I don't like the Beijing airport. The layout is rather confusing and I had to ask for help just to find the check-in counter...which wasn't open yet (one of the disadvantages of flying a smaller airline). At least there were some other English speaking people in line to chat with. I eventually managed to check in and headed for my gate, figuring I'd find something to eat after I went through security. Now I don't know if the entire airport is like this, but my gate was off by itself, separate from all the other gates, with its own security checkpoint and absolutely nothing past that except chairs and a vending machine. So yeah, one of my lousier airport experiences.
Unfortunately, it didn't get much better. I had opted to save some money and take a flight on China Eastern (one of China's second tier airlines), which had a stop-over in Shanghai rather than flying direct to Tokyo. After getting on the plane I waited, and waited, and waited... After sitting around on the tarmac for way too long without any explanation, it started to rain and we were told that we would be delayed due to the storm. So we waited some more... By the time the plane finally took off, we were an hour behind schedule. To make things a little more annoying, China Eastern apparently isn't down with the new ruling that it's ok to use electronics during take-off and landing. Despite the fact that there was no need to change planes in Shanghai, everyone was forced to get off and those of us continuing to Tokyo had to go through immigration there in Shanghai, which left us with just a few minutes to get back on the plane...where we sat around and waited for ages and ages without any explanation once again, before finally taking off even more behind schedule. Are late departures a normal thing in China? Was it the airline? Was it just a really bad day? Whatever the reason, it made me wish I'd paid the extra $100 for a direct flight. And with that, the China portion of my trip ended and it was onward to Japan (which will be covered in its own travelogue).

Random China Comment: Politeness
Every country has its own quarks when it comes to manners and politeness. But I have to say that, by American and Japanese standards, people in China can come across as rather rude. Spitting loudly on the sidewalk is common and I've already mentioned the traffic, which has a strong tendency to ignore signals and any hapless pedestrians who happen to be in the way. Many people also seem to think nothing of cutting in line or blasting music from radios or cellpones in public places. Salesman can be extremely pushy and I rarely found clerks or waiters to be especially polite (though it's not like they were surly). All in all, it's quite a big difference from Japan (where politeness is an art form) and many parts of the US. It's really not that bad, but it takes some getting used to.

Final Thoughts
Over all, I really enjoyed my time in China. It's far cleaner and easier to get around than I expected, there are a lot of interesting things to see, the food is great, and it's really affordable. While there are a few issues that detract from the overall experience, such as the pollution, smoking, and occasional sanitation problem, none of them are likely to ruin a trip. While I wouldn't recommend it over Japan if you're trying to choose between Asian countries, China has a culture and style all its own (many of them, actually, since it's so big) and is worth a visit. And it's totally doable without a tour. I can easily see myself revisiting Shanghai, Suzhou, Nanjing, and Beijing (especially Shanghai, where I feel like I barely scratched the surface) or exploring some other parts of China on a future trip.

And right on to the start of the next travelogue...

Sunday - Monday (June 8th - 9th): Back in Tokyo
If you're reading this without having read my China Travelogue, I headed to Japan after a two week trip through some of China's major cities. The reason for going to Japan? Touring and visiting friends, much like last year (though this year's trip will be a bit shorter, at just one month). Plus, I was already in the right part of the world and I just really enjoy being Japan, especially Tokyo, whether or not I've got any big plans.
Unfortunately, my flight from China, which had a rather late arrival time to begin with, was repeatedly delayed and by the time I landed in Narita, I was worried I might have to spend the night in the airport But I made a desperate rush through immigration and customs, headed straight to the platform, and just managed to catch the last train out of the airport. One of the slowers ones, but it was better than nothing. I ended up at Tokyo Station and decided to walk to hotel that I remembered, which is right near the apartment I'd be renting.
One thing I quickly noticed when walking through Tokyo again was how quiet it is compare to China. Sure it was the middle of the night, but daytime is the same. Being a big city, Tokyo isn't exactly quiet. But without China's constant chorus of car horns, things are a lot more peaceful. The other thing I noticed is that cars were no longer trying to run me over. If I had a crossing signal, I could walk across the street without having to dodge traffic.
Anyway, I spent what was left of Sunday night in that hotel while the following day was mostly spent settling into my rental apartment (getting the keys, doing some shopping, etc.). The most interesting thing came when I stopped in a convenience store after lunch. I took a look at the ice cream, idlying thinking about getting someting for dessert, and saw this. Apparently Hagen Daz currently have multiple veggie ice creams out here. The taste? Not bad, actually. Mainly because the orange is the stronger flavor by far. Anyway, it's a nice addition to my list of weird Japanese ice cream flavors.

Tuesday (the 10th): Robots!
Tuesday afternoon (after making up for some missed sleep), I met up with my friend Ida in Shinjuku. We got lucnh and spent quite a while chatting about all sorts of things before she had to head off. Since I was already in Shinjuku, I decided to check out an item on my touring list. If you read my Japan travelogue from last year, you may remember that I mentioned seeing a truck driving around Shinjuku advertising the new Robot Restaurant. Well, back then I dismissed it but after seeing it featured on an episode of Anthony Bourdain, I decided it would be a worth a visit.
Here's a couple of interesting signs I spotted along the way. The first is for a couple of theme restaurants that can be found in the area and the second is for one of the country's newer fads, cat cafes, where you can pay to spend time with lots of cute cats (and that's it).
If you're in the right area, Robot Restaurant is fairly hard to miss. I didn't have a reservation, but I got there fairly early and was able to get a ticket without problem (that said, by the time the show started the place was nearly full). Despite the words restaurant in the name, its not really a place to eat (though there is a food and drink menu). You start off in the lounge, were you can sit and order drinks and snacks while waiting for the show to start. There's also a pre-show, featuring some rather talented musicians dressed as robots (or maybe the knights from St. Seiya). I thought the flute player was especially good. Eventually, everyone is led out of the lounge and down into the basement for the main show.
The show itself is pretty hard to desribe. I'll try, but you really need to look at the pictures and videos. So anyway, the show has multiple parts, each with its own theme. Robots of sorts are involved, as are flashing lights and lots of cute girls. The first part of the show has a Japanese vibe with taiko drums, dancing demons and tengu, and the like. On an odd side note, I couldn't help noticing that a couple of the girls had tattoos which, in Japan, are usually reserved for Yakuza members. Do they come from that kind of family? Or maybe the tattoos were fakes drawn on for the show?
After an intermission with the pre-show musicans, it was on to robot boxing! Followed by a loose attempt at a story with a whole bunch of copyright infringing characters battling a hoard of invading alien robots. For example, here we have some robots vs. a magical girl with Captain American's shield, Thor's hammar, and Sailor Moon's intro speech (not all are show in the clip). She had trouble with that last guy, but fortunately Jaws was around to help. And that's barely scratching the seruface as fas as pop-culture references go. Then there was the part with lots of different robots and vehicles running around. That transitioned into dancing robots (really, I think this video is a great representation of the show) which then moved on to dancing girls.
All in all, the show was quite the experience. A bit goofy, but fun, zany, and the over the top. Certainly worth a stop if you have part of an evening to kill and don't have any serious object to lots of girls in somewhat skimpy costumes.

Wedneday (the 11th): Akihabara
I was bound to do a big shopping trip in Akihabara eventually and the high chance of rain made this a good day for it. As before, you don't need to hear about all the stuff I bought, but you might find this amsuing. You figure that, if they're using Dragonball Z to advertise hair wax, it might be some pretty awesome wax.

And that's enough for today.


6/11/2014 Walls and Palaces

Well, I was hoping to finish the China travelogues entirely today, but it looks like I still have one more day to go. Still, these two days were the bigger ones by far. With them out of the way, I think I'll be able to start seriously catching up to the present on Friday. With any luck, by Monday everything will be totally caught up.

Day 13 (Fri the 6th): The Summer Palaces
While the emperor mostly lived in the Forbidden City, he also had a nearby summer palace as a retreat of sorts. There's actually two summer palace areas in Beijing, which are right near each other. I decided to start with the Old Summer Palace, which was used from the 1600's - 1860. It used to be filled with palaces and other buildings but they were mostly destroyed by invading British and French armies during the Opium War, so at this point it's pretty much a large park. There are three sections, so I planned my route to take me in a rough loop through all of them.
The first is filled with ponds, streams, water lilies, and a number of bridges, all in different styles. There's also a small temple, which has been turned into a museum about the palace's history. The second area has its own ponds, bridges, and water lilies, but it's also known for its black swans and its ruins. See, this palace originally had a section filled with what must have been very elaborate European style stone buildings. With all that stone, they fared better in the fires than the traditional Chinese buildings, but fell into disrepair and also fell victim to looters who wanted the stone for other things. The only structure that's intact (and only because it was restored) is this pavilion and its surrounding maze. Yep, maze. It's not a very large or complicated one, but I had fun going through it. The final park is mostly taken up by a lake, with a walking path winding all the way around. The whole place is very pretty and a nice area for a stroll or some such. Unfortunately, it started raining after I'd made it about a third of the way around the lake. I was prepared, but it didn't really make me want to linger.
Hopping back on the subway, I took it a couple stops to the Summer Palace. Finding the ticket gate proved a little tougher than I expected. Partly due to poor directions on the part of my tour book, and partly because of the rain. It wasn't all that hard, but some of the streets in Beijing really weren't built with good drainage in mind.
The (not old) Summer Palace is a a bit newer, having been built in 1750. It too took a lot of damage in the Opium War, but was renovated in the late 1800's as a retirement retreat for China's most well known and powerful empress (Cixi). In retrospect, I wish I'd gotten an audio guide because the place is huge and there were a lot of interesting things to see, but I did ok without one. The first place I came across after entering was Suzhou Street, a picturesque canal lined with old style buildings. They were nearly all souvenir shops, but it still made for a nice walk. I then started up Kunming (Longevity) Hill, going through a large, if not especially fancy, temple complex. Turns out, the more fancy structures are all on the other side of the hill, like the Tower of the Fragrance of Buddha, and the Bronze Pavilion. Most things were also connected by covered walkways, which was nice with the rain and all. I eventually made my way to the bottom of the hill, where the rest of the area is situated around a large lake. There was a lot to see. Long covered corridors, small collections of old buildings, a marble and stained glass boat (it can't move, if you were wondering), and even an opera stage like in the Forbidden City. I you walk around the lake for a little while you'll also come to the pavilion where the Empress lived, a nice gallery of ancient Chinese carvings, pottery, metal work, and he like, and a breathtaking view of the hillside.
It was getting near closing time, so I headed for the nearest subway station, thinking I'd get something to eat at the fancy shopping street near my hotel. As it turned out, I passed a little restaurant area and ended up finding a nice Chinese restaurant there with a very extensive menu, complete with English (side note, they had a couple things on the menu made with donkey meat, which I've never seen before). I got some Sizchaun pickled vegetables and spiced lamb (some of the best lamb I've ever had). Also, I'd been reading my tour book the other day and it recommended trying chicken feet so I decided to be adventurous and give them a try. Well, the texture is a little weird and there's a ton of small bones inside, but they actually don't taste bad.
After that it was back to the hotel and that was it for the day.

Random China Comment: Hotels
Hotels in China can be very cheap or very expensive by US standards. I stayed in four different hotels and the cheapest (at less than $30 a night) was actually the best overall (though not the fanciest). In every single case none of the rooms were quite up to the cleanliness standards I'd expect in the US, but not so far off that I'd complain. I'll note that in one case I had to buy my own toilet paper since it wasn't provided by the maid. Also, there were a couple of hotels who asked for a deposit when checking in. Though, in both cases, I was able to recover it by showing the receipt to the front desk staff when I checked out. I'll also note that hard beds seem to be the standard in Chinese hotels, so you may want to keep that in mind if you have trouble sleeping.

Day 14 (Sat the 7th): The Great Wall of China
I'm sure you've heard of the Great Wall. I mean, who hasn't. Built and strengthened over the course thousands of years by hundreds of thousands of workers and stretching an estimated 4,000 miles in its prime (the 14th - 17th centuries), it's up there with the pyramids when it comes to incredible feats of ancient engineering.
Now a days, there are only several sections of the wall which are open for hikers. My tour book, and everyone I heard speaking on the matter, recommend Matianyu, which is the second most popular section. If you've got some extra cash, you could get a tour, rent a car and driver, or some such to take you there. There's also a bus during the summer which runs directly there (though only twice a day). Finding the bus isn't especially easy, and it's kind of slow (about and a half hours each way, but it's the cheapest way to go by far. That's what I did. Looks like the bus is actually fairly popular on weekends, so I'm glad I left rather early and got there before there was much of a line.
About half the drive was in Beijing and the rest through some rather pretty (if touristy) mountain towns. When I finally got off the bus, I could see the Great Wall at the top of the nearest mountain. To get from the base to the wall, you have your choice of a chairlift, cable car, and hiking trail (all letting you off in somewhat different spots). I decided to go on foot. My tour book called the path a grueling hour long climb. I'd say moderately strenuous, and I made it to the top in half of that time at most.
As a side note, the weather was perfect. For one, it was the first and only day on my China trip with a blue sky. The temperature was also pretty good, with a nice breeze and enough clouds to keep it from getting too hot.
Of course, getting on top of the wall is only the beginning. Sure you can pose for photos and get some great views, but what's the point of going all the way up there is you aren't going to hike along the wall for a while? Only when you're on the wall can you really appreciate how they managed to build a wall over such uneven terrain. It twists and turns across the mountains, going up and down, and often quite steeply. Walking along the wall can get you quite a workout. I was prepared and brought plenty of water but there are vendors here and there selling cold drinks, snacks, and souvenirs (at suitably inflated prices). Aside from them and the other tourists, I also found myself passing through ancient towers and by the occasional oddly worded sign. Being a weekend, there were a lot of other people about (both Chinese and foreigners), but there were still some places where I pretty much had the wall to myself. As I reached one of the highest parts of the wall (at least in that area), the view continued to get better. I could even make out Beijing in the distance.
If you go far enough in either direction along the wall, you'll eventually hit a sign saying not to go any further. Everyone seemed to ignore the one I saw. There were even souvenir stands past it. Following their lead, I continued on for a bit. Before long the wall started to get a bit rougher, evidence that it hadn't been fully restored like the area I'd been on. Then, eventually, I reached a fully unrestored area, which was crumbling and overgrown. That's where I decided to turn around, though apparently you can keep going and hike between different major sections of the wall that way. From there, I returned the way I'd came, eventually going past where I'd started. I made it pretty far (looking at that picture, I went a bit past that writing way up on the mountain in the distance), though I didn't quite reach the other "end point" since I wanted to make sure I didn't miss the last direct bus back to Beijing.
When you're ready to get down from the wall you once again have the choice of the path, chairlift, and cable car. Or there's the fun way. I've done toboggan rides like this before in Colorado. This is one of the longer ones I've done but, unlike in the US, they don't make you wait until the person in front of you is most of the way down before you start, so it's up to you to regulate your speed and make sure you don't crash (which means you probably won't be going as fast as you could). Still, it's a fun way to get back down.
I made it in plenty of time for the bus (which is good, since it filled up).
Back in Beijing, I got one last nice Chinese dinner and walked around the night market again. But this travelogue isn't over quite yet, there's still one more day to talk about...

Random China Comment: Smoking
Smoking is extremely common in China and there aren't too many restrictions limiting where people can smoke (and, even when there are, not everyone follows them). So expect to encounter plenty of second hand smoke, especially when walking down the street. Fortunately, most of the restaurants I went to weren't too bad and it is banned on trains and subways and in some tourist attractions (like the Forbidden City and Great Wall). Many hotels also have non-smoking rooms. Still, it's the worst place I've been for second hand smoke (Japan used to be pretty bad but has drastically improved since I first visited), so keep that in mind if you have raspatory problems.


6/9/2014 The Forbidden City

Well, I've left China behind and settled in at a rental apartment in Tokyo, where I'll be for the next month (well, more or less, I'm planning to travel to some fairly far off parts of the country this time around). But you'll get all the details on that later. I was really hoping to get caught up on travelogue entries today...but that isn't happening. Despite spending a good bit of extra time working on it, I only got one entry done, though it's a big one. Part of it was the writing, but part was also the fact that I took something like 470 photos that day. I cut them down to around 200, but that took time and that's still a lot of photos left to sort and name. Then I had to make good web versions of 47 of them for this travelogue entry... So yeah. On the plus side, the remaining days aren't anywhere near that bad and I doubt I'll have any especially huge days here in Tokyo this week so hopefully I start catching up on Wednesday. Anyway, let's get on with today's entry.

Oh, on a side note, I was fighting off sleep when writing a couple of those last entries and it really showed in some of my spelling and grammar. I've since gone back and done some editing and cleanup so, if you haven't read the more recent entries yet, I recommend you do so on the travelogue page, since that has the corrected versions.

Day 12 (Thu the 5th): The Forbidden City
When you think of top things to see in China, the first two that come to mind will probably be the Forbidden City and Great Wall. In fact, those two sights are the reason I was determined to add a few days in Beijing to my trip, despite not having anyone to visit there like I did in Wuxi and Nanjing. Well, this was my Forbidden City day. It may also have been a record setting day for me in terms of number of photos taken (I ended up with somewhere around 470, though I later cut the number down to less than half that). Remember film cameras? I really had to think hard about whether or not to take a picture then when I only got 24 to a roll. Now, I've got a memory card that can hold thousands of shots...
FYI: If you don't know, the Forbidden City is a massive palace complex built in the early 1400's to serve as the home of China's empire and the heart of its government.
Anyway, one of the reasons I chose the hotel I did is because it's in Beijing's old town, right by the Forbidden City. My first stop was the (in)famous Tiananmen Square, which is right in front of the Forbidden City. Security was pretty tight. Getting into the area required a bag scan and a pat down, one of several I'd have to go through that day. I'm not sure if security is always that tight, or if it's because it was right around the anniversary of a certain even which took place in that very square... There really isn't much to see in the square itself so, after a quick look around and a few pictures, I headed to the Gate of Heavenly Peace (shown in the previous picture), which is the southern and main entrance of the Forbidden City. You can actually got up to the top of that gate, which I did. Though it requires an extra ticket, you have to leave your bag with a storage guy (who also charges), and go through another metal detector and pat down. You do get a nice view of Tiananmen Square from the top, but it's not really worth the trouble. The only other thing up there is a few displays focused on Chairman Mao and the founding of the current Chinese government.
Back on the ground, I got a ticket or the Forbidden City (note that, unlike other attractions, you need to show your passport to get a Forbidden City ticket). I also picked up an audio guide, which I highly recommend. The place is absolutely massive and the guide not only gives you a lot of interesting info, it also had a little map of the Forbidden City, with lights that turn off as you visit different areas so you can keep track of where you've been. It also works off GPS, meaning that the different audio segments start playing automatically when you reach different areas. I thought that was rather cool, though there were a couple times where I either couldn't get it to trigger, or had an explanation cut short because I moved too far away.
After passing through the initial (large) entry area and through the Meridian Gate, I ended up in the Forbidden City proper. One of the first things you notice about the place is the scale. The courtyards, the walls, the gates, everything is huge. And that picture was only one of several such courtyards. The entire complex is 180 acres with 980 buildings, though a large chunk of that is closed to the public (either due to administrative use or because it has yet to be restored), but there's plenty to see as is. The attention to detail is quite impressive as well, with elaborate carvings and paintings throughout. Before going deeper in I went off through a more park like side area to a pavilion which now houses a rather nice little museum of Chinese art and calligraphy.
Then, onward past some lion statues (which are everywhere in the Forbidden City and at old important Chinese buildings in general), and into the Outer Court. That's the Hall of Supreme Harmony in that photo, by the way. It seems every structure in the city has an overly grand name. Do you see how the central staircases in the photos are fenced off and seem to have something in the center? That something is a carving (usually of dragons) and indicates that said staircase is for the exclusive use of the emperor. For another trivia bit, see the little figures on the corners of each roof? They're used to indicate the importance of the building or structure. The more figures, the more important it is. The Hall of Supreme Harmony, by the way, is the most important building in the Forbidden City. Here, inside it, is the emperor's throne. Well, one of them anyway. He's actually got thrones in a number of the buildings.
Next up, the Hall of Middle Harmony (or moderate, depending which translation you look at) and the Hall of Preserving Harmony come one right after the other. Note that all three halls are raised fairly high off the ground. And, despite how popular the Forbidden City is with tourists, some of the areas, such as the ground level of that section, are pretty deserted. One of the side buildings there houses a collection of assorted imperial treasures such as this lacquer plate. And really, you know your treasures are valuable when the notes about them are carved into jade.
The next major destination was the Gate of Heavenly Peace, but I took a detour to check out the set of Western Palaces. The palace areas are where the emperor lived with his empress and concubines. As such, they're a bit more compact than the central areas with all the halls. No less fancy, but since they're not used for meetings or other functions, they don't need the same amount of space, so things are a bit more compact.
In seems that, in most cases, residents were free to choose which palace they wanted to live in and all were pretty fancy. But there were some with specific purposes. If I remember right, this one is the rather amusingly named Chamber of Eternal Bliss, where the Emperor and Empress spent their first few nights together (and later where the emperor would spend the first few nights with his new concubines).
FYI, if you need a bathroom break, the one in the Western Palaces area is apparently very highly rated. Yes, they apparently rate rest rooms.
The Eastern Palaces originally served the same purpose as the Western, but now they've all been converted into display areas for various relics and treasures such as this fancy porcelain bowl and this old bronze sword (which looks like it came right out of a video game). Though you need to pay extra fees for the most interesting ones, like the Hall of Clocks and Watches (which is filled with the fanciest clocks you could ever imagine) and the Treasure Gallery, which has fancy carvings like this red coral lion and this jade...cabbage? There's also the Nine Dragon Wall, and if you don't get why it's named that, you need to get your eyes examined. And then there's the hall of ridiculously large jade carvings. According to the audio guide, it took many men and horses three years to transport the original rock from that pictures to the capital and another ten years of transportation and work before it was ready for display. And, of course, the usual Forbidden City scenery.
Towards the north end of the Forbidden City are the Imperial Gardens, which are nice but crowded. I think this large stone hill (which only the emperor could ascend) is probably the coolest part.
I think I spent somewhere around 4 - 5 hours in the Forbidden City, but I was pretty thorough in my exploration. If you just wanted to go through and hit the major halls, you could probably finish in 90 minutes.
Leaving from the north end of the Forbidden City (via the Gate of the Divine Warrior), I could see Wanchun Pavilion at the top of the hill in the park across the street. For a very small fee you can enter the park (which is nice in its own right) and climb the hill to the pavilion for good views of Beijing and great views of the Forbidden City. And here I am up there.
Since I'd started early in the day, I still had time to do a bit of sightseeing. I was originally planning to walk to my next destinations, but at that point I decided I was getting more than enough exercise as is, so I took the subway to Lama Temple, the most visited religious site in Beijing. One thing you see at Chinese Buddhist temples, but not Japanese, are these prayer wheels. They've got a prayer either engraved on them or on a scroll inside and spinning it around is supposed to be as good as saying the prayer yourself. It's a nice temple, and has this really cool statue in one of the courtyards, but the main reason to go is to see this statue of Meitraya Buddha. If you can't tell from the photo, it's a towering 85 feet tall and carved from a single block of wood. I've seen a lot of Buddha statues, but this was certainly one of the most impressive.
Right nearby is the Confucious Temple. From what I know of Confucious (mostly learned from informative museum on the temple grounds, I don't think he was really the kind guy who would want people worshipping him. But anyway, it's an interesting museum and a nice temple. Plus, the ticket also gets you into the Imperial Academy, which is right next door. It was a very long standing public school, where people studied and took tests in order to become government officials. The emperor was also known to give speeches there in the past, and has a pavilion and throne ready and waiting.
After that, it was getting near closing time for most attractions so I went to get some food and then called it a day.

Random China Comment: The Internet
I was able to get internet access at every hotel I stayed at (via either ethernet or wi-fi), though the connections were all on the slow side. Most things worked just fine but China does its best to filter all internet traffic, going so far as to block some sites entirely. The major ones that could impact travelers being Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and Dropbox. Google and its related sites (such as gmail), which are usually ok, also get blocked every now and then. For example, for the last half of my stay, everything Google was blocked, presumably due to the anniversary of that event I mentioned earlier.
If you can't live without certain sites, there are ways to get around the blocking, though the reliable ones aren't free. Also, I noticed that I had no trouble accessing gmail and Facebook via their official aps on my phone. So there are options. But, if you're planning a trip to China, you may want to give some thought as to whether the internet issues could pose a problem.


6/6/2014 Traveling across China

The new voter bonus comic is up and it's time for more travelogue. As a note, if you didn't see my previous set of travelogue entries, they were posted a day late (on Thursday).

Day 10 (Tue the 3rd): Wrapping Things Up in Nanjing
This was my last day in Nanjing before moving on to the next and final stop on my China trip. Connie and I started out the day with a walk by Xuanwu Lake. It's a large lake with a pretty walking trail going at least most of the way around. Another thing surrounding much of the park is an ancient wall which, aside from looking cool, blocks out the noise from the traffic. There's actually a place where you can climb the wall and walk along the top too. The lake also has a few historic sites such as a pavilion where the emperor would site and observe his army and navy back when Nanjing was the capital.
Leaving the lake, we walked a short distance to Jiming Temple. It's a nice temple with a pagoda and a good collection of statues and paintings. Also, lots and lots of hanging lotus blossoms (not real ones) used to hold prayers. It also had a considerable amount of plant life, adding to the ambiance. Another good reason to visit is the view you can get of Xuanwu Lake and its wall. The temple also has a fancy vegetarian restaurant, with lots of elaborate mock meat dishes.
At that point, we'd pretty much run through everything on our sightseeing list and, since Connie and I both like super hero movies, we ended up going to see the new X-Men (which was very good, by the way). The theater was nice, with reserved seats like in Japan and similar pricing to the US. Though Chinese people don't seem to care quite as much about talking loudly, turning their phones off, and the like. After that it was back to the 1912 area for another great dinner then chatting with Connie for a while and that pretty much wrapped up my time in Nanjing.

Random China Comment: Sanitization
I already talked about general cleanliness and the water quality, but I should also note that most Chinese restaurant don't have a place for your to wash your hands and, unlike Japan, they usually don't provide those nice little wipes or hand towels. Combine that with the dodgy tap water here, and you need some way to clean your hands. Carrying about a packet or wipes or a small body of anti-bacterial stuff for your hands is a good idea (and something many Chinese do as well).

Day 11 (Wed the 4th): Off to Beijing
Connie had to leave early in the morning to get back to work, leaving me the chance to sleep in a little bit and then head to the train station. I already had my ticket so, before long, I was off to Beijing. The scenery on the ride wasn't anything too impressive. Farms mostly, with a couple of small cities here and there.
The entire ride took about 4 1/2 hours, which wasn't bad at all. My hotel this time (chosen for its cool Chinese style and not its rather problematic internet) is right by the Forbidden City. By the time I found it and checked in, it was a bit late to go to any tourist sites so I walked around for a while instead.
Anyway, my walk put me near what my tour book said was supposedly the best roast duck restaurant in the city so I decided to swing by. I had to pass through a very old residential section on the way. Despite the run-down looks, it didn't feel dangerous. More like I'd stepped back in time a hundred years or so (aside from the cars, at least. As luck would have it, I was able to get a table at Li Qun almost immediately without a reservation. While the place doesn't look like much, lots of famous people have eaten there. The main event is the roast duck. The proper way to eat it is to lay a few of the pancakes (though they're more tortialla-ish) on your plate. Then take one piece of chicken, dip it in the sauce, and use it to paint the sauce on the pancake. Add that piece of chicken and a couple others, along with onion (and maybe cucumber) to taste and wrap it up. I got duck three ways which also included a peppery duck broth soup and the bones (with bits of meat left on them) salted and lightly fried. I actually got a bit confused with the menu (despite the English) and ended up ordering a whole duck worth of food. Fortunately, I hadn't really eaten much of anything that day and was able to make it through most of it. Kinda a ridiculous amount for one person to eat though. I don't know if Li Qun is really the best roast duck, but it was good and a fun experience.
On the way back to my hotel I stopped by a fancy shopping street and then stumbled across the night market, a alley packed with stalls selling all sorts of things by mostly food and drink. There was some odd stuff there including scorpions and other bugs. As a note, some/all of those scorpions are still alive when you order (you can occasionally see them moving on the stick). Though, even for the Chinese people, they seemed to be more of a photo op than something to buy and eat. If you're not hungry, there are some small alleys lined with souvenirs, Certainly worth a walk through, anyway.

Random China Comment: Early Impressions of Beijing
Some initial impressions on Beijing:
The traffic seems just a little bit calmer compared to other places I've been. Maybe because of the significant police presence.
It seems a little bit dirtier than Shanghai and Nanjing.
You don't see a lot of tall buildings in Beijing, at at least not in any of the areas I've been to. Likely to preserve the old stye of many parts of the city.


6/5/2014 A late travelogue update

Sorry for the lateness of this news post. I got the comic updated but I was having trouble with internet access and a couple other things came up, eventually leaving me with the choice of putting off the update or staying up extremely late to finish it and I was just too tired to do the latter. Anyway, here it is now (a day late). This will in no way affect Friday's update.

Day 8 (Sun June 1st): Nanjing's Purple Mountain
Connie and I headed out fairly early in the morning and headed to the Purple Mountain (or Zijishan) area. We were a little worried about rain, but everything seemed ok...at least for a little while. It did eventually start raining, quite hard at one point, but we had our umbrellas and picked up some rain ponchos, so it all worked out.
Anyway, our first destination was the Ming Tomb, one of the country's largest and most important burial mounds, which holds the first emperor of the Ming Dynasty. The path to the tomb has a few different sections. One is guarded by a number of animal statues, both real and mythical, and another features large stone warriors. There are also some smaller buildings along the way. While the tomb itself is actually underground, this impressive structure marks its place. The rain was getting bad at that point, but we climbed to the top and hung out in that building for a while, where they have a gift shop and some info (in Chinese and English) about the country's imperial tombs. According to a passing tour guide, who Connie was listening in on, the underground portion of the tomb (which isn't open to the public) is massive and still hasn't been fully explored.
Once the rain had died down a bit, we headed back to the start of the tomb area, grabbed a quick lunch, and caught a tram to another part of the mountain to visit Lingu Temple. I have to say, Buddhist temples in China have a very different style to them than those in Japan. Note the hanging flags, candles, and the fancy "tree" of hanging prayers on the left side. There were also some very nice carvings and statues, though I wasn't able to photograph the best ones. The temple area also features a neat old building turned small history museum (mostly focused on Sun Yat-sen, whose mausoleum is nearby (he was an important figure in the formation of China's current government, though it went in a very different direction after his death)) and a pagoda (though a relatively recently made one).
After that, we went to another part of the mountain to the botanical garden, which is part garden and part forest with walking paths. It was nice, though probably not the best time of year to visit in terms of flowers and the like. After walking around for a while, we headed back to our hotel to rest up a bit before supper. On the way, I was reminded of some important subway rules and spotted an ad for a supplement that probably won't be catching on in the US.
We took some time to rest up and dry off, then headed out for supper. We went to the same part of the city as the previous night, a nightlife hot spot called 1912 which is filled with fancy bars and restaurants. The restaurant where we ended up was themed after China in the 20's or so, including a guy walking around and pretending to be a key historical figure from that time. We got a few different dishes to share but this was the highlight. As you can probably tell, it's a fish, deboned and fried. The sauce uses a tomato base but it's a lot more than that. Kinda tangy, with pieces of cucumber, dragon fruit, and watermelon. I've never really had anything like it before, but it was excellent, and a good way to finish the day.

Random China Comment: Salesmen and Scams
As in Japan, non-Asians in China tend to stand out quite a bit. Unlike Japan, that means that you'll get a number of people coming up to you for one reason or another. In Shanghai, I had people coming up to ask if I wanted to buy an iPad, designer handbag, or the like (probably all bootlegs). In Suzhou I had people trying to offer me various tour packages. And everywhere, there's the occasional person who will come up to me for a friendly conversation (supposedly to practice their English) and invite me to come with them to chat over a cup of tea or coffee. Now, I'd like to think that at least some of those people are sincere but my tour book, along with a few signs I've spotted in various places here in China, warn not to accept their offers as the goal is generally to get you to some tea shop or cafe they have a deal with and rack up an extremely high bill. They can be very hard to dissuade (as can legit salesmen, once they get started), so I recommend acting like you're in a hurry and walking away as you explain that you can't go. After a while, I actually started doing my best to entirely ignore them from the get go, pretending that I either can't hear them or don't speak English.

Day 9 (Mon the 2nd): History and Gardens
Once again, Connie had a good day planned out. After a quick stop at a bakery, we came to the presidential palace. It's not used now but, in the past, it served as the headquarters for various dukes and other high ranking officials for hundreds of years, eventually hosting Sun Yat-sen during his period as president. There's a bit of interesting history to learn about inside, a bunch of stuff about the rise of the current Chinese government, and various relics of rulers past. But the best part is really the attached gardens. Here's Connie by one of the ponds.
After finishing our exploration of the palace, we visited a nearby museum. Its main focuses were the Chinese silk industry from past times to present and a classic Chinese novel called Dream of the Red Chamber, which looks like a rather interesting read. There was also a garden, unique in the fact that it used multiple levels of the building to great effect.
Once we'd finished there it was off to the Nanjing Folklore and Cultural Heritage Museum, which is set in an extremely large (supposedly 99 1/2 rooms) old house. Though it's more of a compound of numerous building than a single house. There were a wide variety of exhibits inside, including traditional toys and crafts such as paper cutting (in some cases, the artisans were there for you to watch or talk to), various items and costumes from Nanjing's festivals, and a section devoted to traditional marriage and child rearing customs. Here, for example, is an old bridal headdress. Apparently red is the traditional bridal color. And this is a place to stick your baby when you want to make sure it won't go anywhere. English was rather limited, but the displays were all very interesting. Of course, the house had its own gardens as well. Someone was actually doing a cosplay photo shoot there at the time (Japanese anime is pretty popular in China).
Next was a late lunch / early dinner at Nanjing Da Pai Dang, a rather famous local restaurant themed after China a couple of hundred years ago. It has an extensive menu (with English), great food, and very reasonable prices. Highlights of the meal included duck filled steamed dumplings, salted duck, and red bean and mochi in a wine based soup. Definitely my favorite restaurant of the trip so far.
Connie and I were going to do a little more touring after the meal, but it started raining again so we decided to call it a day a little early and ended up watching a movie back at the hotel instead.

Random China Comment: Staying Hydrated
China tour books warn you not to drink the tap water and that's a sentiment that seems to be shared by the locals as well. Water fountains are pretty rare (though train stations usually have a drinking water dispenser you can use to fill a bottle). Fortunately, bottled water is easy to find and really cheap (often less than 20 cents a bottle, $1 at absolute most) so you should get into the habit of keeping some around both while you're touring and in your hotel (you'll want to use it for brushing your teeth as well). Train stations and subway platforms sometimes have vending machines, but generally you'll need to buy you water from a shop or snack stand. Fortunately, the water served at restaurants (usually hot), along with their other drinks and those to be found at tea and coffee shops/stands, and the like is said to be safe.


6/2/2014 Continuing in China

I was really hoping to do three days worth of travelogue entries today but it looks like I've only got time for two, which is going to put me another day behind. I blame Suzhou (see the travelogue entry below), as the massive amount of pictures I took there took ages to sort through. Anyway, for now here's a couple of days worth of entries and I'll hopefully be able to write some extra entries and catch up over the coming week or so.

Day 6 (Fri the 30th): Suzhou
Suzhou is a small city (by China standards) around 45 minutes outside of Shanghai. It's a canal city and has the nickname of the Venice of the East. Having been to Venice myself (back before I started Pebble Version and these travelogues), I can say that modern Suzhou itself is nowhere near as picturesque, though it does have its moments. However, the main reason to visit Suzhou isn't its canals but its gardens.
My first stop was The Humble Administrator's Garden, the largest and most famous one in the city, which was built in 1509 by a former court official. Water is a key feature, and there are streams and ponds all throughout the garden. It's also the only Chinese garden I've seen so far to include a large number of flowers (which normally seem to be rather absent). Of course, it also makes use of a lot of rocks, pavilions, and walls. It's a pretty big place, and there's a seemingly endless number of scenic views. Other features include a bonsai garden and a number of different types of gates. There's also a nice (if somewhat hard to find) museum on Chinese gardens and gardening in Suzhou.
From there, I took a walk south, stopping briefly at a small folk museum, and arriving at Lion's Grove Garden (or Lion Forest Garden, depending which sign you look at), which turned out to be my favorite one of the day. In order to dodge some big tour groups, I started by skirting the edge of the garden, which took me though some small halls and courtyards, along with a display of especially aesthetic rocks. It wasn't until I emerged into the main section of the garden that I realized just how different it was from the others I'd visited so far. In Lion's Grove, rocks are the main element of the design. And the rocks do much more than create a rather otherworldly landscape. As you can see in the previous picture, they're riddled with paths, tunnels, and stairs, which you'll need to navigate if you want to see all the garden has to offer such as waterfalls, beautiful pavilions, and excellent views. I loved climbing over and under the rocks and, to make things more fun, there's a bit of a maze element as well as the twisting paths rarely lead where you expect them to. While I suppose not everyone will appreciate getting lost amidst the rocks like I did, it's really one of the most unique gardens (Chinese or otherwise) I've ever seen.
My next stop was a bit further and required a walk through some residential and shopping areas, complete with oddly named restaurants. As it turned out, the Temple of Mystery (a Taoist compound) is in the middle of a big shopping street. It's not especially large, but its very brightly colored and features a large number of golden statues.
A rather long walk further south brought me to this little alleyway and the Master of the Nets Garden. It's the smallest of the gardens I visited, but very nicely laid out, and incorporating pretty much every major element I've seen in Chinese gardening. Fancy pavilions, walls and gates, places for art and poetry, water, rocks, etc.
Continuing my walk along more canals and past some strange pubs, I reached the Blue Wave (Clanglang) Pavilion, the city's oldest garden (over 900 years). It's partially surrounded by a moat and, like all Chinese gardens, completely surrounded by a wall. The plant life is a bit more wild than in the other gardens and its main features is the latticework in the windows, as every single one has a different design. There was also a rather unique collection of furniture carved out of Banyan tree roots.
At that point, it was time to start heading back towards Suzhou Station. Though, so you know, there are a number of other gardens that I didn't have time to see. It was a rather long walk (I probably should have taken a bus or taxi), but I did have time to take a quick climb up the North Temple Pagoda back near The Humble Administrator's Garden. It's too bad Suzhou doesn't look all that impressive from above.
Back in Wuxi, I met up with Melissa one last time for supper at a Chinese hot pot restaurant. If you've ever had Japanese shabu-shabu, it's pretty similar, though with a somewhat different selection of broths and ingredients. The food was good, the restaurant was very fancy, and the total bill only came out to 100 Yuan (around $16) for the two of us. I'm really starting to like eating out in China.

Random China Comment: Old Names
Old places in China be they gardens, pavilions in said gardens, streets, and the like tend to have very elaborate names, often taken from lines of famous poems. For example, The Pavilion of Sleeping Amidst the Clouds, The Elegant Bamboo House, and the Pure Fragrance Pavilion, just to name a few. Its rather fun to read the names, though their length can make them difficult to remember and talk about.

Day 7 (Sat the 31st): On to Nanjing
In the morning, I left Wuxi behind to move on to my next hub, the city of Nanjing, where I'd be meeting another friend. Nanjing is only around an hour and a half from Shanghai (less than an hour from Wuxi). Situated by some major rivers, it served as the country's capital on multiple occasions throughout China's history. As such, it's got a lot of older buildings and historical sites. It's also a good bit greener than Shanghai, with trees lining many of the streets (though the sky is still just as hazy).
My hotel in Najing is an interesting one, as it's more like renting out an apartment for a few days. It's pretty nice (that picture only shows the first floor, of two) and has a good central location. The only problem, it's pretty much impossible to find. I got to the general area with no problem (interesting note, the subway in Nanjing uses blue plastic coins as tickets) but couldn't seem to find the building. So I tried the directions in my Agoda app (the site I used to book the place), which were way off. Once I got back to where I thought the hotel should be I started asking for directions as well as I could without speaking Chinese and was directed a couple blocks further down the road (turns out, the numbering on both sides of the street weren't exaclty in-sync). Anyway, that got me to the right group of buildings but I still couldn't find the hotel and no one seemed to know where it was. In the end, I gave up, waited for my friend Connie to arrive, and enlisted her help. As it turned out, it wasn't really my fault. You need to go into a building which shows no indication it's the correct one and take the elevator up to a specific and unmarked floor to find the reception desk. I'd be shocked if anyone found that without help. Even Connie had to call the hotel and have someone come down and show her the way (something I considered earlier but gave up on since the hotel lacks English speaking staff). Agoda really should have listed something about the location...
Anyway, once we'd settled into our rooms, Connie and I headed out. I let her plan the itinerary for this entire leg of the trip and this first day didn't disappoint. We started with a walk through the area around the Confucian Temple, which is filled with old buildings (now shops and restaurants). Highlights included a park with various old buildings and scenic bridges, Wuyi Alley (which also happened to be voted number one on the list of Nanjing's top ten old place names (seriously)), and an old house belonging to a series of government officials, which is now a museum including some nice works of art. We then took a boat ride on the nearby Qinhuai River, which seems to be the area's main attraction. The boat tours last for the batter part of an hour and go past a number of ancient buildings and other points of interest, with an audio tour (in Chinese) along the way. You can go during the day to get a good look at all the structures, or at night when everything is lit up. Connie and I began our boat tour at dusk, getting a bit of both and avoiding the significantly longer lines that sprang up after dark. The ride was really nice with lots of great views of the river and older parts of the city.
Finally, we finished the day in a nice Chinese restaurant. Connie went a couple steps further than I usually do in my planning and read reviews to find which menu items were the best. My favorites were three cup chicken (which features a special sauce and great use of basil) and a mixture of friend mushrooms. All in all, aside from the problems finding the hotel, the day was a great start to my stay in Nanjing.

Random China Comment: Cleanliness
If you've ever been to a China Town in the US, you've probably noticed that they tend to be rather grungy. As such, I naturally expected the same of China proper. But I was pleasantly surprised. While not on the same level as Japan (which is really in a class of its own), everywhere I've been in China so far, be it ordinary city streets, flashy shopping areas, or even some lower class residential sections, the streets, canals, buildings, and the like are all pretty clean, with minimal litter or other problems. I'd say that the places I've seen in China are more or less on par with the US in terms of general cleanliness, which certainly makes the trip more pleasant.


5/30/2014 A different side of Shanghai

There's a new bonus comic so vote to see it! And now, more China travelogue!

Day 4 (Wed the 18th): Yu Garden
On Wednesday morning, I headed to the train station, ready to go back to Shanghai and continue touring. Unfortunately, I had to wait around at the station for a while (see the RCC at the bottom of this post for more about the train system here), so by the time I did arrive in Shanghai, it was a good deal later than I would have liked. And, since I had plans to meet up with my friend that evening back in Wuxi, I couldn't stay too late. So, I headed straight for the main spot on my touring list for the day, Yu Garden. I really didn't know much about it, other than that it's an old Chinese garden (from the 1500's) and my tour book recommended it highly. But, as I approached the area, I was pleasantly surprised, and rather excited, to see a distinct change in architecture. After all, all the buildings I'd seen in Shanghai so far (outside of that museum) was more American or European in style than what I'd think of as Chinese. But actually that was just the outskirts. A little further on, I found my way into Shanghai's old town, which surrounds Yu Garden, and that's when I really started to feel like I was in China. Amazing old buildings, a maze of shops (mostly touristy stuff), restaurants, and tea houses, and just a really great atmosphere all around. It reminded me a bit of Asakusa in Tokyo, though Asakusa doesn't have anywhere near as many cool old buildings. Ok, the Starbucks in that last picture does seem a bit out of place. But hey, that has got to be the coolest looking Starbucks anywhere. I spent quite a while wondering around and exploring before eventually coming to the zigzag bridge right outside the entrance to Yu Garden itself.
I wasn't really sure what to expect from the garden. Old Shanghai was amazing enough, and I've seen a lot of really good gardens in the past, but Yu Garden really impressed me. Chinese gardens actually differ quite a bit from the Japanese kind I'm so familiar with. There are quite a number of differences but a few of the key things that especially stick out in Chinese gardens are their heavy use of interestingly shaped rocks (to a far, far, greater extant than Japanese), the incorporation of walls (along with their gates and grated windows), and the large number of pavilions, towers, and walkways (Japanese gardens may have a single tea house or pagoda, if anything), all with very poetic names and beautiful (if relatively simple) interiors. The garden was surprisingly large, and there were so many great views no matter where you went. The whole place was just spectacular (though it's too bad the water and sky weren't a bit bluer).
When I finally pulled myself away from the garden, I walked around old Shanghai for a bit longer before deciding that I really needed to move on. I didn't really have time to do any of the other major things on my list, so I walked though the city a bit instead, heading towards a metro station where I could catch a subway back to the train station. As an aside, I passed by some lower class areas along the way, so here's a quick glimpse at a less glamorous residential area. It's actually not nearly as bad as a handful of spots I glimpsed from the train. Though, to be fair, the vast majority of the residential areas I've seen here so far have looked quite nice. I also passed through The People's Park which, though a nice enough park, isn't anything all that special.
Back in Wuxi, I met up with my friend Melissa again. We strolled for a bit in an old temple complex turned shopping center. It could use some repairs and other improvements but, with that kind of architecture, it could potentially turn into a pretty cool area. After that, we went to another nearby shopping area for dinner, though it was a lot glitzier, with a European theme going. And that was the day.

Random China Comment: Trains and Subways
Since Japan's public transit system is the one I'm most familiar with (and have written about in the past), I'll be doing some comparisons here. Many major Chinese cities feature a subway or metro for getting from one part of the city to another (trains, on the other hand, are primarily used for going to different towns/cities entirely. If the one in Shanghai is any example, they're pretty easy to use. The lines run frequently, the ticket machines have an English language option (use the touch screen to choose your destination and then put in the money required), then run your ticket through a machine, wait at the platform and you're off. Well, there is one notable difference compared to Japan (or any other subway system I've used). If you're carrying a suitcase, backpack, handbag, or really any sort of large baggage, you have to put it through an x-ray machine and walk through a metal detector (though you don't need to take anything out of your pockets). Trains are the same, though you have to go through a quick wanding after the detector as well. For the most part though, the Shanghai metro is quite and pretty easy to use even if you don't speak Chinese (though I'd recommend picking up an English map).
Trains are a bit more complicated. First off, trains are lettered (though not in order). G are the fastest (roughly equivalent to Japanese shinkansen in design), D are similar though make a few more stops, and all the other letters are best avoided unless you're trying to go to some rural area where the faster trains don't stop. Also, all trains are reserved seating only, which means tickets can sell out (unlike Japan, when a train is only full if you can't smash someone else in. Speaking of tickets, you have to go and buy them at a ticket office (at the train station or scattered about here and there) before you can proceed. If you just tell the person where you want to go, they'll probably offer you the next available time though, due to the reserved seats, you may end up having to wait quite a while for a train with a free seat. However, you can buy your tickets hours or even days in advance (though a worked knowledge of Chinese, or reference sheet of useful phrases), which is a good idea and it ensures you 'll get your train (so long as you show up on time) and reduces the amount of time you'll be stuck in a ticket line (they tend to move rather slowly). As a note, you'll need to show your passport to buy a ticket. The locals, however, can also use their China ID cards for the automated ticket machines (which foreigners can't make use of). All in all, it's rather inconvenient compared to Japan, so buying your tickets ahead of time is a really good idea if you don't want to be late.
Anyway, when you have your ticket, you can show it (and your passport again) and go through security to get to the inner part of the train station. From there, you need to find what waiting room relates to your train (check your ticket or the departures board) (smaller stations have only one waiting room while others could have quite a lot). Show your ticket and passport one more time to get into the waiting room then, if there's more than one gate, find the one for your train. They often start boarding 15 minutes or so before the train leaves, and getting on requires putting your ticket through a ticket machine. Make sure to take it back afterwards, as you'll need it to leave the train station ay your destination. Speaking of which, you need to take your ticket back after scanning it at your destination as well (even though the metro machines eat your used tickets).
So yeah, trains work, but you really needed to plan ahead, get there early, and Buy tickets in advance to take advantage of them.

Day 5 (Thur the 29th): Around Wuxi
My friend Melissa was able to take the afternoon off of work, so she offered to show me around Wuxi in the afternoon. First, a couple random shots (I used the morning to walk around a bit and get some work done). Here we have one of Wuxi's canals, here are some drinks I'd rather not try, and here's one of those gigantic apartments complexes I mentioned. Those are all apartments and there are a lot more of those buildings you can't see in the shot. And that's only one such development, there are tons of them, with many more being built.
Anyway, Melissa took me to a nice little noodle place for lunch and then to the Xi-Hu Hills Park. I really wasn't expecting much from Wuxi since it shows up little if at all in English touring information, but the park was quite nice. One side split off into an old (though not especially fancy) town type area and a temple complex with some nice views and a number of different buildings. Here's the temple itself (sorry for the lousy photo, the sun was in a horrible place) and here's some things they had up for an ongoing butterfly based event.
After strolling around the temple complex for a bit (and watching out for lightning) we rode a cable car to the top of one of the hills for a nice, if very hazy, view of Wuxi.
Finally, we meet up with several of Melissa's friends and coworkers (shockingly, one is from the same town in Colorado as I am) at a Chinese restaurant (the kind where you order a lot of different things and share them. The food was good and the people were nice, making it quite an enjoyable dinner. After that, Melissa and I went to that huge apartment complex from earlier and joined one of the couples from dinner for a couple rounds of Dominion (a fun card game). As a side note, that apartment complex has nice landscaping and facilities inside. But, strangely, the interior halls and elevators of those fancy looking buildings are extremely simple and unadorned (to the point of potentially looking run down). The apartments themselves, however, can be really nice inside (interestingly, Melissa said that each apartment is usually sold entirely unfinished and then completed by the new owner, who then often rents it out.
It was a fun, if lower key, day and got me thinking that maybe Wuxi should be in some of those travel guides after all...

Random China Comment: Money and Pricing
China's currency is the Yuan (also known as the RMB). As I'm writing this, it's around 6 Yuan to $1. Bills come in 1, 5, 10, 20, and 100 (yes, that's the highest, despite only being worth around $16. There are also 1 Yuan coins, and 1 and 5 coins for Jiang (there are 10 Jiang in a Yuan), but you'll only see Jiang if you shop in a grocery story or the like and they can be rather hard to use due to their very low value. Credit cards are accepted sporadically (like in Japan), so you might want to bring a giant briefcase of bills if you want to go antique shopping or some such (seriously).
Prices in China vary from dirt cheap to US level, depending what you get and where. Starbucks, for example (or western places in general) charge more or less what you'd pay in the US. On the other hand, I got this nice Chinese meal for all of $2. And, you can go to one of the many little tea stands or stalls where coffee, milktea, and other drinks cost only cost a 1 - $2. Same thing at restaurants. Nice Chinese ones can be incredibly cheap (just a couple dollars even), while foreign ones tend to cost considerably more.
For a few other things, Metro rides average 75 cents or less and trains are far cheaper than Japan. A 20 minute cab ride can be had for $5, a bottle of water is 16 - 50 cents, and one of those electric scooters people ride? Around $400 for a pretty nice one. As for my hotels, I only paid $27 a night for my place at Wuxi which, while not fancy, is fairly nice. I've got fancy and really well located places choosen for the rest of my time in China though, never spending more than fifty something a night. So yeah, if you eat Chinese, China an be an extremely cheap trip (airfare aside)

Well, it looks like today's activities will have to wait. Later!


5/28/2014 Shanghai

Let's get right to the travelogue...

Day 3 (Tue the 27th): Shanghai
My primary goal for the day was to get to my hotel in Wuxi (a city a bit outside of Shanghai), where I'd be staying for the next few days. There was a bus directly there from the airport, but it was rather on the slow side and didn't run all that frequently so I opted to take the quicker, though more complicated, route. I started out by getting ticket for the high speed maglev train into the city proper. If you haven't heard of maglevs, they're a fairly new kind of super fast train (up to 400kph). Anyway, from where the maglev ended, I needed to switch to the metro or subway. Fortunately, it proved to be pretty easy to use (I'll go in detail on it in a future RCC) and before too long I made it to Shanghai Railway Station, the city's main train station. At that point, I could have gone straight to Wuxi but, since I didn't really need to be there until evening, I went looking for a coin locker or some such where I could leave my luggage and start touring. They didn't seem to have lockers, but there were some places (called "left luggage" where you can pay to have your stuff stored for a while) so that worked too.
I decided to go to the Bund, a rather famous part of the city, but I took a wrong turn and ended up on East Nanjing Road so I started exploring there instead. It's another popular Shanghai destination, composed of a lengthy shopping street that's mostly closed off to traffic. It's pretty high end stuff, for the most part, and I spotted a number of name brand retailers from the US and Japan, along with some more local places. It made for a pleasant stroll, and one building had a big food court with English menus so I was able to grab a late breakfast as I went. There was also some kind of performance or ceremony going on. I'm note quite sure what it was, but it was interesting to watch. On a side note, didn't everyone stop using bayonets long before guns like that came into use?
Anyway, after walking the length of the shopping area, I turned around and headed back towards the Bund. It's an stretch of the city following one of Shanghai's rivers, with a nice wide walking area following the water. The thing I noticed first was the view across the river. I have to say, that's got to be the most sci-fi-ish skyline I've ever seen. Aside from the view, the Bund is also known for its collection of fancy European style buildings. They were built a long time ago when the city served as something of an internationally controlled port. They're pretty impressive from the outside and even more so on the inside. I looked in one that I heard a passing tour guide recommend to his group. Marble everywhere, lots of columns, and mosaics... Certainly one of the fancier interiors I've seen (no pictures allowed, unfortunately). These days, quite a lot of the buildings are used as banks, though I spotted a hotel and some high end stores as well.
As I was strolling up and down the bund, I came across a couple of odd English signs. The first, this coffee place. What's a muskcat anyway? Then there was this sign (and a whole lot just like it), which I would assume are an overly poetic way to say "stay off the grass". There was also this rather epic statue, and a girl in one of the more interesting dresses I've seen in a while. She was there with a guy in a maroon suit for a photo shoot, so I'm going to guess it's a wedding dress, despite the unusual color... And here's a couple more interesting buildings I spotted towards the north end of the Bund. Doesn't the one on the left look like it should be someone's evil fortress in a video game?
That futuristic looking tower on the other side of the river was intriguing, so I decided to take a closer look. The cheapest way to cross the river at the Bund is to walk back to the metro station at East Nanjing Road and take it to Lujiazui. But if you want to do a bit less walking, or like trippy light shows with your subway rides, you can take the underground tunnel from right at the riverside. The ride itself isn't all that great, but it does get you across and they sell slightly discounted combo tickets for the tunnel and various attractions on the other side of the river, including that tower (which I learned is call the Shanghai Oriental Pearl Tower). Fortunately, there wasn't much of a line at the time so, before long, I was up riding what they claimed to be the world's fastest elevator up to the observation deck for some impressive views of Shanghai.
I should probably note the the day was pretty hazy (which I've heard is normal here), as you can tell from the pictures. Actually, I ran a number of my distance shots through Photoshop to reduce the haze, what you see here, it was worse. Still a good view though.
Much like Tokyo Tower or the Tokyo Skytree, the Pearl Tower has more than just an observation floor. For more money there's a higher outer space theme viewing floor (which I passed on) and a revolving restaurant. There's also a slightly lower floor with a full 360 degree transparent floor. There was also an arcade with a roller coaster (all indoor though), which I skipped. And back down on the very bottom floor are some restaurants, gift shops, and assorted attractions.
The Shanghai History Museum caught my eye and was free (with admission to the tower), so I decided to give it a look. Glad I did too. The museum traces the development of the city from its early days up through the present. It's divided into sections for different periods, each of which features recreated buildings and street scenes, some life size and some scale models. The museum ended up being a lot bigger than I expected, was very well done, had plenty of English signs, and was quite interesting. It also had signs like this which is, if you ask me, a very dramatic way of saying that there's more upstairs.
Once I'd finished making my way through the museum, it was about time to start heading for Wuxi so it was back to the train station to retrieve my bags and get a train ticket. That part worried me a bit, as getting train tickets here in China is a lot more complicated than in Japan (I'll write a RCC about it in the future), but I was able to pull it off. The scenery from the train wasn't too exciting, but it did hammer in just how large China's population is. The view seemed like an almost endless parade of apartment buildings. The vast majority looked both new and fairly nice, and were clustered in groups or developments. What was really impressive was that each building in a given group was around 40 stories tall. That's a lot of apartments, and there were many, many more being constructed. While most of what I saw throughout the day was moderate to fancy, I'll note that I did spot the occasional poorer looking apartment building and, from the train, I glimpsed a handful of apartment and housing areas with a distinctly third world vibe.
Anyway, in the end I managed to make it to my hotel and meet up with a friend of mine, who I'll be hanging out with a bit while I'm here. All in all, it was a fun day and my ability to successfully get around and get things done without any Chinese made me a lot more confident about this trip as whole.

Random China Comment: Traffic
One thing I soon noticed is that traffic in China can be a bit of a mess. Cars, bikes, and motor-scooters all share the roads leading to some interesting traffic situations, especially since the "rules" of the road seem to be taken as suggestions at best (I've never heard so much honking). Bikes and motor-scooters not only weave between traffic, but tend to ignore all traffic lights and occasionally drive on sidewalks so, as a pedestrian, you really need to pay attention, especially when crossing a street. Speaking of which, Chinese pedestrians don't seem to pay much attention to walk / don't walk signals themselves, and will often make their way across the road whenever and wherever they can. And don't get me started on the way the taxi drivers I've had here drive... Honestly, I'm surprised I've yet to see an accident. That said, as a pedestrian in China, make sure to stay alert. Far more than anywhere else I've ever been, China leaves me feeling like I'll be run over if I don't pay enough attention.

Random China Comment: "Name" Tags
It probably doesn't surprise you that employees at train stations, hotels, and the like in China wear name tags. Except they're not name tags, they're ID number tags instead. Not that I could read Chinese name tags anyway, but it reminds me of a bunch of dystopian sci-fi stories... So far, the only place I've seen to use actual name tags was one restaurant, but I haven't really done any shopping, so maybe retail is different in general.

Looks like I'll have to stop here for now. I'd wanted to talk about what I did today as well, but I'm already pretty late with this update. Hopefully I'll be able to get caught up on Friday.


5/26/2014 On to China!

Well, I made it to China and I have a working internet connection, at least for now. As a note, for the remainder of my time in China, and the following Japan trip, expect PV updates to be early to mid morning, rather than late night / early morning.

Preparing for China
China is a country I've wanted go to for a long time, but I always figured it would be rather difficult to do unless I joined a tour. I thought that for a number of reasons, but my complete lack of Chinese (I know several non food words at best) was always a big part. More recently though, I made a couple of friends who live in China and we've been wanting to visit each other so I decided to take the plunge and plan a trip.
Naturally, when traveling to China you need to do all the usual international travel type things. But there is one area that sets China apart from the other countries I've visited...the visa process. In the past, I was always able to just fly to whatever country I was visiting, fill out a quick form, and get a tourist visa. For China, however, you need to apply for a visa ahead of time. On the bright side, the process doesn't take more than a week (and can be expedited for a fee), but it has to be done at a Chinese embassy which means that, if you're like me and don't live near one, you'll have to go through a company. There are several which will do the process for you, though you need to fill out and send them all the paperwork and your actual passport. The whole thing (the cost of the visa and the company's fees) could easily run you around $170, so keep that in mind when planning a trip.
Also, set aside a couple of hours for filling out the application form. It's long and you need to have the basics of your trip planned out before hand. Specifically, you need your arrival and departure tickets (and at least potential itinerary for a flight to your home country, if your departure ticket goes elsewhere) and a complete list of where you'll be staying and when for your entire trip. So you need to book those hotels early. Though it's more complicated if you stay with a friend or relative, since you'll need a letter of invitation from them and, after getting to China, you'll need to notify the local police of where you're staying (something hotels do for you).
So yeah, it's a long process but, if you want to go to China, you need to make sure you get it done.

Random China Comment: Time Zones
Mainland United States has four separate time zones, plus one more each for Hawaii and Alaska. So, for a country as big as China, how many to do you think they have? The answer...one. Yes, China technically covers a number of time zones but to simplify things (at least that's the reason I would assume), they keep the entire country on a single time zone. There's an element of convenience there, though I have to wonder how it works it areas with an especially early or late sunrise/sunset.

Day 1 - 2 (Sun - Mon the 25th - 26th): Flying to China
China isn't the shortest trip from the US, no matter where you're going from. I ended up getting a flight from Honolulu to Shanghai, changing planes in Seol, South Korea. I flew Korean Airlines, which was a first for me. Fortunately, the flights went really well. Nice planes with free personal entertainment systems and plug sockets, smooth, and with pretty good food too. Mostly Korean, unsurprisingly. I actually got three meals. Two on the 10 hour flight to Seol, and another on the less than two hour flight from there to Shanghai.
I had a window seat on the first flight, so I was able to get a bit of a look at South Korea on the way in. It looked really pretty from the air, lots of green hills (often shrouded in fog), rivers, bays, and islands. Other than that through, all I saw the was the airport. It's a pretty nice one, by the way. Felt more like a fancy mall than an airport with lots of duty free shops selling name brand clothing, jewelry, and accessories. There were even frequent performances by a string quartet (though they weren't playing Korean songs).
Once I got to China, the immigration and customs process was surprisingly quick and easy (I suppose because everyone already went through the big visa application), so that was nice. Especially since I got in fairly late. Because of that, I'm actually spending my first night at a hotel that's right inside the Shanghai airport. The hotel itself is so-so, but the location is really convenient. So far, everything as gone well, but I think my first real test will come tomorrow as I attempt to make my way to my first "hub" hotel...


5/23/2014 A hectic weekend

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As previously mentioned, I'll be leaving Hawaii on Sunday for two weeks in China, followed by a month in Japan. While I'm pretty confident about my internet access in Japan, I'm not quite as certain about China, and even if all my hotels have internet as advertised, there will be some sites I simply won't be able to access. That said, Pebble Version should update normally while I'm gone (though updates may be a few hours earlier or later than usual) and, of course, I'll be keeping travelogues. This Monday's update, however, may be skipped since I'm getting in rather late. I'll try to update, but no promises, I'll just have to see how things go. Now, let's wrap up this Hawaii travelogue, since I don't think I'll be doing anything today or tomorrow worth writing about.

Thursday (the 22nd): Makapu'u Lighthouse and Some Big News
I'd been wanting to get another hike in before I leave Hawaii, but I had a lot to do so I ended up settling on Makapu'u Lighthouse, a shorter hike that I hadn't gotten around to yet. It's a fairly easy trail. Despite being all up hill, it's not especially steep and the entire thing is paved, making is a fairly simple and pleasant walk through one of the island's more deserty areas. The lighthouse itself is tucked into the side of the cliff. You can't go in it, but you can get some nice views from the top of the cliff up above. You can also climb up a nearby hill to find some crumbling army bunkers and more views. Finally, if you want to explore a bit more, and brought a swimsuit, there are some tidal pools at the bottom of the cliff you can make your way down to. I spotted a few people sitting inside, chatting and watching the waves, but it looks like a bit of a climb.
In the evening, I headed down to the end of Waikiki for a festival. It was part of a several day event called Hawaiian May, which seems to have been put together by the Japanese Travel Bureau, which includes a fashion show, among other things. This particular event was a gathering of local food trucks, along with some booths selling artwork, clothes, and the like. There was also a stage with hula, ukulele, and other performances. It was a fun way to kill some time and try different foods and just goes to show that there's always something going on in Honolulu.
And that wraps up this rather short Hawaii travelogue...but I'll be starting a new one before long. See, I got some big news today. Remember that meeting I mentioned back at the beginning of this trip? Well, as a result, I was offered a position at University of Hawaii's West Oahu campus, to start a game design program under their creative media division. While my current teaching position in Florida has gone pretty well overall, this position has a lot of cool opportunities, plus I'll get to see my family more often. So, after I return from Japan, I'll be saying goodbye to Florida and making a move to Oahu. But I'll talk more about all of that when the time comes. Expect a final post or two to wrap up my Florida travelogue series in July and the start of a new (and somewhat different) Hawaii travelogue come fall.


5/21/2014 Lots of work

Well, I've certainly been working hard these past two and a half weeks. I've made a lot of progress on Aurora's Nightmare, along with a couple unrelated jobs. I've also been planning what exactly I'm going to do and see while in China and Japan, though I still have some work to do in that regard. I've only got about half of my Japan itinerary figured out, and the easier half at that. Hope to get the rest done by the end of the week though, since I'd rather not have to spend time doing it while I'm in Japan. I've made some serious progress on my Netflix queue as well, since I like to have something on TV when I work on the character art for Aurora's Nightmare. On the other hand, I think this is the longest I've gone without playing video games in quite a few years. I've got my Vita and 3DS with me, but I've been trying hard to focus on work and, the bit of time I'm not doing that has been spent on the occasional hike, beach visit, and other Hawaii things. Still, this isn't actually the first time that designing video games has left me with little to no time to actually play them, and I really doubt it will be the last. I love game design, but it's not as fun and glamorous as a lot of people think.

But anyway, I'm off. I've only got a few days left in Hawaii and, at minimum, I really want to finish that trip planning and a little more Aurora's Nightmare work (along with a little more Hawaii stuff) before I leave. See you Friday!


5/19/2014 One more week...

It's my last week in Hawaii. At least for now. There's actually decent chance I'll be back here later in the summer and, even if I'm not, I'm bound to come back before too long either to visit my parents or just take advantage of their condo, like I'm doing now. Anyway, it's hard to believe that I'll be in China a week from now...

Friday - Sunday (16th - 18th): A Hawaiian Weekend
This weekend was filled with fairly typical Hawaii type stuff. The weather was pretty nice on Friday, though I ended up spending most of the day working. But hey, the view was nice. And, come evening, I headed down to Waikiki to watch the sunset and the Hilton's weekly fireworks show.
Saturday afternoon I headed down to the beach for a while. It turned out to be a high surf day. On some beaches, that means everyone but really experienced swimmers needs to stay out of the water. Waikiki, however, doesn't get too bad. Playing in the waves was fun, but it left me wishing I had a surfboard to really take advantage of them. On that note, I'd been meaning to rent a board so I headed out on Sunday morning. While the surf wasn't quite as high as on Saturday, it was still really good. It was fun, though I still need a lot of practice catching waves on my own. The real problem is figuring out the best place to wait for the waves. If I manage that, the rest isn't bad, though paddling a board around for extended periods of time still leaves my arms and shoulders pretty sore. Maybe I need to change up my usual upper body exercises a bit... But anyway, I did catch some waves, had fun, and I even saw the surfing pig. Yes, you read that right. Click the link to learn more. Unfortunately, since I was surfing at the time, I couldn't take any pictures of my own. Cool to see though.


5/16/2014 Hiking

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Wednesday (the 14th): Hiking Kuliouou Ridge
Since I really don't get any opportunity to do so in Florida, I've been wanting to get some hiking in while I'm here. And now that the weather is more stable (it was raining a bit over the last few days), I decided to get started. For my first hike, I settled on Kuliouou Ridge. It's actually a hike I tried once before with my family (see the entry for the 25th), but we got rained out. Since then, I've been wanting to go back on a day with better weather and finish it. It's a pretty nice hike. You do spend most of the time ascending, but it's not all that steep and you go through a whole lot of different types of terrain, which keeps things interesting. You also spend most of the time in the trees and out of direct sunlight, which can be pretty nice on hot days.
Of course, the main draw of the hike is the views. You start out with some excellent views of Hawaii Kai and Koko Head and then, when you reach the end of the trail, you're presented with an amazing view of the island's east coast. I've heard that, on clear enough days, you can see several of the other Hawaiian islands in the distance. Unfortunately, it wasn't quite that clear for me, but I really can't complain about the views I did have and the hike was fun. If you're looking for hikes on Oahu, I highly recommend it.

Thursday (the 15th): Aloha Shirts
I don't have too much to say about today, but there was a couple highlights. I took a stroll down the canal that runs roughly parallel to Waikiki. The water is unfortunately rather dirty, but you can see a lot of small fish in it if you look. Most of them aren't all that interesting to look at, but I did spot the occasional larger fish and, to my surprise, a sea horse. I've never actually seen one in the wild before, even when snorkeling. I didn't even know they lived around here. So that was cool.
I eventually ended up on a street a little northeast of the end of Waikiki. It's not a fancy area but it's home to a few good restaurants (including a really great poke place, a good ramen restaurant, and a yakitori one I really need to try sometime) and Bailey's Antiques and Aloha Shirts, a store that's famous for its collection of new and used aloha shirts. I'd never been there before and figured I'd take a quick look. To be honest, the sheer number of aloha shirts is a bit overwhelming. The prices vary as much as the selection, running from several dollars to several hundred. It was certainly worth a look and, if you're really into aloha shirts, it's the place to go.


5/14/2014 Halfway...

Well, it's the mid point of my Hawaii vacation. I'm getting a little tired of spending so much time every day sitting around and working but I am making good progress. It's not just the touring, I haven't even played any games since I got here. Sigh... Oh well, game design isn't all "fun and games". If I don't get the Aurora's Nightmare character art done before I leave, it won't be for lack of trying (and I'll at least be pretty close). Though I really should take a bit of a break from Aurora's Nightmare today, since there's a couple other things I need to get done.

At least this is all mostly the kind of work I can do while watching TV. So that's been kind of fun. For example, I just finished the Fate/Zero anime. It's excellent, by the way. Dark serious story, deep characters, epic battles, beautiful animation and music... It's an amazingly well done adaptation of the novels. That said, I have a little trouble recommending to anyone who hasn't played Fate/Stay Night. Being a prequel, Fate/Zero stands quite well on its own (though the ending makes it fairly clear that there's more to come). The only thing is that it spoils about half the major plot twists in Fate/Stay Night and that'd be a shame for newcomers to the series, since Fate/Stay Night has such an amazing story (note that the original visual novel game is far superior to the current anime and manga adaptations, which leave a lot out; though there's a new anime coming in the fall which could be better). But anyway, if you've played Fate/Stay Night, or don't mind some partial spoilers, Fate/Zero is really a must see.

Well, I should head off for now. Lots of work to do today and I really want to a get hike in.



5/12/2014 W&R

Short for work and relaxation, if you're curious, which is pretty much what I'm doing here in Hawaii. Anyway, I promised a travelogue entry so here we go...

Sunday - Saturday (May 4th - 17th): Back on Oahu
To quickly summarize, I had a work related meeting on Oahu right after the end of spring semester. Since it seemed like a waste to fly all the way to Hawaii for just one day, and I my parents have the condo in Honolulu, I decided I might as well stay for a a few weeks before continuing on to other areas. However, since I've been here many times before (and will likely be returning here many times in the future), I decided that I should focus primarily on work (mostly on Aurora's Nightmare, the game I'm currently developing) this trip rather than touring. But I'll be doing a bit of touring and, as a result, am keeping a small travelogue. In this entry, I'll be covering my first week here.
Due to the scheduling of that meeting, I had to get my plane ticket later than I normally would have. On the plus side, I did find a good price. On the down side, it wasn't the greatest itinerary. I had to take four flights in one day (Gainesville to Orlando to Denver to San Francisco to Honolulu), which I believe is a personal record. The layovers weren't too bad, and the flights themselves went smoothly enough (the final flight even had in-seat electric outlets and a huge selection of free movies). And, while it looks like I probably won't be making it back to Colorado this summer, at least I got to snap some photos while flying over it. Here's the Rocky Mountains, and here's my hometown of Grand Junction. I have to say, taking pictures while flying is rather fun. But it's too bad the windows usually aren't all that clear. Unfortunately, with that many flights there are a lot of chances for something to go wrong and, as I feared might happen, they lost my suitcase. I did get it back the next day, but not until after my meeting which, was a bit inconvenient.
Monday was mostly taken up with the meeting. It went well, but it's too early to say what, if anything, will come of it, so I won't go into any details right now.
Tuesday was the most interesting day from a touring perspective. They were cleaning the parking garage at my parents' place and, since they're in Arizona right now, they asked me to move the car for the day. So I decided I might as well take the day to have fun. I ended up heading to the north end of the island. My main destination was Shark's Cove, which has a reputation of being one of the best snorkeling areas on the island. But, due to the rocks and tides, it's not safe to go during the winter and, the last time I was here during the summer, I didn't have a car, so I'd never been there before. My first stop after arriving was the tide pools next to the cove. They make a nice wading spot and there were a lot of fish around (most of them fairly ordinary in appearance though), but you do need to watch out for the urchins. As for the snorkeling, the beach at the cove is tiny and very rocky, which makes getting out into the water a bit of a pain even when the surf is fairly calm. But once you get a little ways out it's not a problem. What makes Shark's Cove special compared to the other snorkeling areas I've been to here is that the water is a lot deeper, so you get a number of large rocks down below (complete with small crevices, caves, and the like) and bigger fish than you tend to see elsewhere. I spotted a sea turtle as well, which was cool. That said, because of the rocks you do need to be a bit more careful, though so long as you go on a calm day during the summer it shouldn't be too much of a problem.
After spending a while at the cove, I swung by Haleiwa to get lunch. Aside from restaurants, it's got a bunch of food trucks gathered on one end. Most are shrimp, but there's a rather unique hotdog and burger place and a nice crepe stand as well. After that, I went to Waimea beach (the one I visited last winter, with the big rock you can jump off), which has quickly become one of my favorite beaches on the island, and spent a while just hanging out and relaxing.
After that, I didn't do anything particularly worth talking about for the rest of the week. Just a lot of work, a bit of shopping, and a little beach time. But I did get some nice sunset pictures Saturday evening. So far, it's been a nice, if not especially exciting, vacation. I've got a couple more weeks here in Hawaii, which will probably follow a similar style. But if I want exciting, I should have plenty of that on the upcoming legs of my trip...

Random Hawaii Comment: Driving on Oahu
This is actually the first time I've driven here on Oahu. When I was here by myself in the past, my parents hadn't yet moved their car over here and, since then, I was always here with them so one of them drove. Anyway, you don't really need to drive here since the bus system is pretty good, but driving is faster and a must if you want to go on any but the most famous hikes.
Driving on most of Oahu isn't bad, though a lot of roads could use some repaving. But driving in Honolulu is horrible. And, surprisingly enough, it's not the drivers' fault. For one thing, Honolulu is a compact city that just wasn't designed for this much traffic, so you never know where and when a traffic jam will spring up. But the real problem is the roads. Lanes unexpectedly become forced turns, or change into packing lots at certain times of day. One way streets abound, and at various times of day assorted on-ramps and turns are blocked off. So far, I've had to do loops around blocks due to lanes that force you to turn just a tiny bit too early, been forced to constantly switch lanes due to cars parking on the side of the road, and driven miles out of my way because a certain road forbids all left turns during evening hours. Even the highways can be a bit confusing, frequently merging and unmerging in a way that makes it easy to end up on the wrong one if you're not paying attention. I'm sure that, given enough time, you can learn all the city's idiosyncracies and have a much smoother experience, but that doesn't change the fact that, so far, Honolulu is the most confusing and annoying place I've ever driven.


5/9/2014 Travel plans

As usual, click the TWC button on the left and vote to see the weekly bonus comic. For another comic related announcement, Pebble Version will now be returning to its usual Mon, Wed, Fri update schedule. That's not to say the bonus content is finished yet though. I still owe you guys a few Timmy Tonka strips, which I'll try and get done over the next week or two.

In somewhat related news, Nintendo has announced remakes of Pokémon Ruby/Sapphire (titled Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire) which will be released later this year! They haven't said much else yet but hey, if you want to know a bit about what to expect, you could always re-read Pebble Version (and tell all your friends to do the same).

I did say I'd talk a bit about my summer plans. For now, here's the quick version, I'll go into more detail at a later date. As I previously mentioned, I'll be in Hawaii for another couple of weeks and then, I'm off to China! It's a country I've been wanting to see for a long time, but for a number of reasons (language among them), always thought it would be rather hard to visit, unless I was on a tour. Well, last fall I made some friends over there. We've been wanting to meet in person, so this seemed like a good time to give it a try. I'll be in China for two weeks. I would have liked to go for a bit longer, but between the flights and my friends' schedules, it worked out best this way. Besides, I'm really not sure how easily I'll be able to get around when I'm on my own (which I will be some of the time) seeing as I only know a couple words of Chinese. But hey, China is a big country and I'll only be scratching the surface on this trip. If it goes well, maybe I'll plan a longer trip for the future. Anyway, I'll be in China through early June. After that, since it will be a fairly short trip, and I'll already be in that part of the world, I decided I might as well visit Japan as well. I love spending time there, I have a lot of friends living there right now (a number of whom are from the US and only moved there recently), and there's many more places I'd like to see. I'll be spending a bit of time in Tokyo, of course, both to visit friends and hit up my favorite spots, but I'm planning to travel much further afield than I did last summer. I'm still deciding on exactly what areas to focus on, but it should be cool. Right now, I'm planning to stay in Japan for around a month and return during the second week of July, though that could change slightly. And, at the moment, I'm actual not sure where I'll be returning to. Depending on a few factors including what comes of that meeting I had earlier in the week, and what my parents end up doing, I could wind up spending the remainder of summer vacation in Hawaii, Florida, Arizona, or some combination of the three. Either way, it'll be an exciting summer.

Naturally, I'll be doing travelogues for China and Japan and will do my best to keep PV updating normally (I'm pretty confident about my internet access in Japan, though a bit less so in China). Next week, I'll probably start up a new Hawaii travelogue as well. Don't expect a ton of info, since I've already written about Oahu pretty extensively and am trying to focus more on Aurora's Nightmare than on touring, but I do have a bit to write about and some photos to share.

For now though, have a good weekend!


5/7/2014 Sleep...

Well, I finished the meeting, got my suitcase back (not until that evening, but at least I have it now), got some work done, and managed to spend a little time at the beach as well. The one thing I still need though, is to catch up on sleep. I had a lot of late nights last week due to work and such and between that meeting and some other things I haven't really had a chance to change that. I'd really like to write a bit more, but I'm barely staying away right now. I'll write a proper news post (probably about the rest of my summer plans) on Friday.


5/5/2013 Vacation start!

Well, after four flights and one very long day I successfully made it to Honolulu, Hawaii. Unfortunately, it seems my suitcase didn't. You know, ever since I booked this leg of the trip I was a bit worried about that. I mean, four flights in one day (I think that may be a record for me)? That's a lot of chances for them to screw something up. Hopefully they'll figure out where my suitcase ended up and get it to me today. Hopefully... On the bright side, there wasn't anything especially valuable in there. But it does have my clothes, toiletries, and all that important stuff. I've had airlines lose my luggage multiple times in the past and I've always gotten it back within a day or two. But even if that pattern holds true, this is probably the most annoying instance since I've got a business related meeting today (which I may or may not talk more about in the future, depending on what comes of it). And without my suitcase I can't shave (well, I could use a non-electric razor but I think a bit of stubble will looking better than a sliced up face), can't do my hair right, and will have to decide between dressing casually (since all I have is the clothes I was wearing on the plane) or borrowing my dad's stuff (which probably won't fit very well). That aside, the trip went decently. And there's a chance (albeit a small one) that the suitcase will show up before my my meeting.

Anyway, I'll be here in Honolulu for the next three weeks. PV updates should continue normally, but will take place a few hours later than they usually do because of the time difference. As for what happens after those three weeks...I'll talk about that Wednesday or Friday. Right now, I really need to get some rest before that meeting.


5/2/2014 Vacation time!

Vote using the TWC button on the left to see this week's bonus comic!

Well, today is the last day of spring semester and on Sunday I'll be heading off to Hawaii for the first leg of my summer vacation! I'll be there for three weeks and then it's on to... Well, I'll talk about that next week when I have a bit more time. PV updates should continue as scheduled while I'm in Hawaii though, due to the time difference, updates will be happening a few hours later than they normally do. I'm not sure if I'll be doing more Hawaii travelogue entries or not. Depends what I do while I'm there. But there will definitely be travelogues for what comes after that...

Anyway, it's been crazy finishing up finals and getting ready for the trip and it's not quite over yet so I really have to run.

See you Monday!


4/30/2014 That's the commentary

The remaining commentary for last month's donation rewards (strips 276 - 280) is done! I still owe you guy a few Timmy Tonka strips, which I'll probably start working on next week. Mon - Fri updates will continue through next week as well. I'll be pretty busy through Monday, but things should calm down significantly after that. At least for a few weeks... But I'll talk more about my summer plans another day. Right now, I gotta go.



4/28/2014 Time crunch

Well, it's the last week of my spring semester. Which pretty much means grading final projects along with a few other wrap-up sort of tasks. In my case, since I'll be leaving on Sunday, I've got assorted trip prep stuff to take care of as well. Fortunately, I got a lot of that done last week, but there's a bit more to go. Anyway, I was hoping to have the rest of the commentary done for today, but a couple of things came up so I didn't quite have enough time.

On that note, I should probably be off. Expect that commentary on Wednesday.


4/25/2014 Continuing the commentary

This week's voter bonus comic is up! Use the TWC button on the left to vote and see it.  I also finished the commentary for strips 271 - 275.

And...that's about all I have to say. Between work and taking care of some assorted things related to my summer travel plans, the last few days have passed in a blur. But I've finished most of the high priority things, so that's good. I'll probably give you guys a rundown sometime next week. For now, let's just say this summer should make for some pretty cool travelogues...


4/23/2014 Making plans

I finished a bit more of the commentary (strips 266 - 270), ten more to go.

Only a week and a half until summer break... I spent a long time thinking about what I was going to do this summer but had to wait to see what would happen with a couple of things before making any plans. But then those things finally fell into place late last week and I've been scrambling to get things planned out. I'm not done yet, but I'm making good progress. I'll be leaving Florida right after the start of summer break. I would have preferred to wait a few days or a week, but I actually need to be in Honolulu that Monday, so there's no time. And, since I have to go to Honolulu anyway, and I can stay in my parents' condo, I'll be hanging out there for a few weeks. I plan to divide my time there between relaxing and doing some serious work on Aurora's Nightmare. After that, I've got some international traveling planned (I'll save the details of that for later) which will probably last around six weeks. But the exact end date of trip, along with where I'll be going and what I'll be doing afterwards, is still up in the air depending on how some other stuff goes. Visiting family is Arizona is likely, but it'll probably be another few weeks before I can work out the details. Anyway, I'll give you guys the run down once I finish working things out. You know, some year it'd be nice to have a summer where I could plan everything leisurely far in advance... Maybe next year...


4/18/2014 Bonus content

The weekly bonus comic is up! Click the TWC button and vote to see it.

In other news, now that I've finally got all those travelogue entries finished, I've started working on some of the bonus donation content I owe you guys. First up, the next batch of commentary. So far, I've finished it for strips 261 - 265. Expect the rest to come over the next week or so.



4/16/2014 A brief tour of Boston

If you didn't see Monday's post, Guardian of the Stone (one of my novels) is free on Amazon this week. On a completely different topic, did any of you guys see the blood moon Monday night? I got rather lucky and managed to see it despite a lot of clouds. My camera, as much as I like it, isn't really ideal for photographing the night sky, but I did manage to get one pretty nice picture. Now for one last belated travelogue...

Saturday (March 29th): A Brief Tour of Boston
I was only in Boston for a few days and most of that was taken up with family stuff (I was there for my Grandma's 95th birthday party), but on Saturday morning my cousins gave my brother and I a quick walking tour of the city. There wasn't time to see a whole lot, but it was fun. And it was kind of cool to see the city now since as I was recently running around Revolutionary era Boston in Assassin's Creed III.
The history behind the city still shows through and it's full of cool old buildings, both important ones like the state capital, and regular homes. There's also a ridiculous number of impressive old churches. It seems like we ran into another one every block or two. But the coolest place we saw was the Boston library. If it's not the world's fanciest library, it's certainly near the top of the list with all the marble, arches, and elaborate murals. And check out this study hall. You didn't see all that many books though, and most of the ones there were old and rare (here's my brother and cousins in front of one of the shelves). As it turned out, there's a more modern and ordinary wing where most of the books are kept. We also walked around a fancy mall, stopped in a store dedicated to 3D printers (which was neat), stopped by an interesting playground, and got a nice view of the river.
And that's about it. I didn't get to see all that much of Boston, but it was fun and I'd love to spend a couple days there sometime and take a closer look around.


4/14/2014 Passover time

Remember that PV is updating five days a week (Mon - Fri) now. Except tomorrow, when there will be no update since I'll be celebrating the start of Passover. Also, remember that I'm running a weekly dev blog for Aurora's Nightmare (my upcoming visual novel game) at http://penandswordgames.com/AurorasNightmare/ If you'd like even more to read, and haven't picked up Guardian of the Stone yet (the first novel in my Verities Silex trilogy), it's free through Friday on Amazon! So give it a download and, if you like it, please leave a good review.

On a different subject, I didn't really get the chance to do all that much touring during my weekend in Boston a couple weeks back, but I did get some pretty cool photos, so I think it's worth a travelogue entry. Expect that on Wednesday.


4/11/2014 More Disney

Click the TWC button on the left to see this week's bonus comic and continue on to read the rest of the travelogue entry I started back on Wednesday.

Monday - Thursday (March 24th - 27th): Vacationing at Disney World Part 2
So anyway, after checking in, I walked around the All-Star resorts, caught up on some internet stuff, and then headed to Downtown Disney. It was actually the busiest I've ever seen the place (I guess I wasn't the only one on spring break), and there was good live music on the streets. After walking around for a bit and getting a meat pie, I went to my main destination, Cirque du Soliel's La Nouba show. I saw it once before a couple of years ago (see my first Florida travelogue) and it was just as amazing the second time. I've said it before but, if you ever have the chance to see a Cirque show, go. You'll never see anything else like it.
I spent the next day at Animal Kingdom. As always, watching the animals was a whole lot of fun, as were the rides. And check out this video I got during the bird show. The park hasn't changed much since the last time I was there. The only real difference is that the Festival of the Lion King show is currently closed, along with the Camp Mickey kids' area, since they're doing construction there (it's being turned into a large new section based on Pandora (from the movie Avatar)). One thing I took advantage of during the day (and the entire trip) was the new Fast Pass+ system, for skipping lines at various attractions. It replaces the old Fast Pass system. Now, you get three Fast Passes per day (though only one can go towards the most popular couple of rides). You can choose them at one of the Fast Pass+ kiosks in the park, but the lines tend to be kind of long so, if you got you park tickets in advance, I recommend signing up for My Disney Experience on the Disney World web site and making your FP+ selections online ahead of time (you can also download the companion app and make your FP+ selections on that). You can do the same with restaurant reservations too, which is a really good idea for the more popular places (especially for dinner). That's what I did, and I finally got a chance to try out Tusker House, Animal Kingdom's African buffet, which was pretty great (lots of types of couscous, veggie dishes, and some grilled meats).
Next day, Disney Hollywood Studios. The props at the Studio Backlot Tour had been changed around a lot since last time, and there was some pretty cool stuff. They also have a goofy little Pirates of the Caribbean show running right now (it's in a building that tends to change every now and then depending on what movies are currently popular). I ate at The 50's Prime Time Diner. It's just what it sounds like in terms of food (meatloaf, milk shakes, etc.), nothing exotic, but good. What's really cool though is the theme. The whole place is done up like a stereotypical 50's house, complete with TVs playing period appropriate shows. All the wait staff treats you like family (literally), and you're reminded that mom doesn't like elbows on the table. I also have to mention the dessert menu, which is on a Viewfinder. It's really a fun place to eat. Later that night, I used one of my FP+ selections to finally get a good seat at the awesome Fantasmic show. Good thing I did too. The lines for that show were just as bad as I remembered. After that, I took advantage of extra magic hours to finally get on the Toy Story ride. Personally, I don't quite see why the lines are always so long (other than the license), but it is one of the best of those target shooting rides that I've been on. Oh, and I also got the build your own lightsaber I've been eying ever since my first visit to the park years ago.
I spent my third and final day at Epcot, which is in the midst of the annual Flower and Garden Festival. So that means lots of flowers and Disney themed topiary everywhere, a butterfly house and other gardens, and concerts (only on weekends though, so I didn't get to go to one). Also, food booths! Not nearly as many as at the Food and Wine Festival in the fall, but there's still some excellent selections. A few of my favorites this year include sweet potato and cinnamon waffles topped with pineapple softserve, ghost pepper dusted tilapia with mint sauce, and the potato and cheder biscuit with smoked salmon. Speaking of food, I also ate at the main restaurant in Germany for the first time. It's a buffet (pickled vegetables, meats, pretzel rolls, and bread pudding, to name a few dishes) designed to look like a traditional German village. Eating there is also the only way to see the German music show, which is pretty cool. Here's one of the many different instruments they played. One of my priorities for the day was actually catching the various shows I never got to before, including the Mexican mariachis and MoRockin' (the music and dance show in Morocco). I made sure to catch Off Kilter (the Canadian / Keltic rock group as well), since I really enjoyed them last time.
And that about sums up my time at Disney. While I wish my mom could have come like we'd planned, it was still fun and I enjoyed the convenience and perks of staying at a Disney resort. I'll have to do it again sometime with a group.


4/9/2014 A Disney vacation

Wow, it's easy to forget that there's less than a month left before the start of my summer vacation (college professors get those, just like the students). My summer plans? Well, they're still mostly ideas at this point though things are starting to come together. Considering how I like to do big trips, I really wish I could make my summer plans much further in advance but, for various reasons, I wasn't able to do so the past couple of summers and this year is the same. Anyway, I'll likely be doing some pretty serious traveling this summer, but I'll wait and talk about that once things have been finalized. For now, let's continue those travelogues from last month's trip. Up today, my Disney trip...or part of it anyway. I ended up having a lot of extra work yesterday, so I only had time to write the first half of the travelogue entry. But I figured I might as well post what I had.

Monday - Thursday (March 24th - 27th): Vacationing at Disney World Part 1
The week after GDC was spring break for me so my mom thought it would be nice to come and visit me in Florida for a few days before we both headed to Massachusetts at the end of the week for my Grandma's birthday party. Since there isn't all that much to see or do near my apartment, I suggested we spend the time in Orlando. As it happened, there was a sale on certain Disney hotels going on at the time, so it was decided. Unfortunately, in a mixture of really bad luck and really bad timing, my dad broke his knee literally hours before my mom was going to the airport for her flight so she had to cancel (fortunately, he's healing well). I heard the news while touring Alcatraz on my last day in San Francisco. We spent quite a while going back on forth on what to do. Canceling things at the last minute is tough (at least if you want your money back) and I still needed to fly out of Orlando on Friday for my Grandma's birthday anyway, so in the end it was decided that I'd go to Disney myself (I invited some friends to join me but they were, unfortunately, too busy with school and/or work to get away on such short notice). While I'll talk a little bit about the Disney parks, I've already written about them pretty extensively in the past so I'm going to focus more on the whole resort experience and some things at the parks I hadn't done before.
I arrived in Orlando Monday morning. Or rather, I was supposed to (I had timed my flight to arrive about the same time as my mom's), my flight out of San Francisco was delayed for a couple hours (and was a bumpy and generally miserable flight in general), so I didn't make it until early afternoon. Add in a fairly long wait for the shuttle to where my car was parked, and I got out of the airport a lot later than I'd hoped to. The original plan had been to spend the afternoon at a water park but, between the delays and the intermittent rain, I decided to skip that and headed straight to the hotel instead.
I stayed at Disney's All-Star Music Resort. There are three All-Star Resorts (Music, Sports, and Movies), all of which are right next to each other. They're Disney's budget set of hotels (they've got more or less three levels of hotels, with the price ranging from around $100 - $400 a night, not taking the frequent special offers into account). Despite being budget hotels, the All-Star resorts are pretty nice. My room was large and comfortable, there was free internet, quite a lot of TV stations, and nice little touches (like the maid arranging my fresh towels in the shape of a mickey head, flower, or some such every day). They also have fun themes (as you can tell from the pictures), big pools, and nice landscaping. There was also a nice arcade, a cheap restaurant, a jogging path, activities for kids running nearly all day, and Disney movies on a big screen every night at the pool.
Now there are a lot of hotels you can stay at in and around Disney World, but there are a number of advantages to staying at an actual Disney resort (aside from the general quality and fun factor). First off, you're actually in Disney World, so you spend less time in transit. You also get free and frequent shuttle busses to all the theme parks, water parks, and other attractions (each resort has its own set of buses for every destination, so they're quite quick and convenient) though, if you have car, you also get free parking at all the theme parks if you prefer. You can have anything you purchase delivered to your hotel for free so you don't have to carry it around all day. You get access to extra magic hours, which are days when a park either opens early or stays open late but only for Disney resort guests. Aside from giving you more time to have fun, extra magic hours are also a great way to dodge the long lines at some of the more popular rides and attractions. Finally, there are magic bands. Magic bands are bracelets available only to resort guests and season pass holders (if you plan out your trip in advance on Disney's web site (more on that later), you can order your bands early, get your name written on them, and choose your favorite color, all for free). First, and probably most importantly, they act as your room key (they have RFID chips inside). You can also bind your ticket to your band, so you don't have to ever pull out the ticket itself when you want to enter a park, make Fast Pass selections, and the like. You can also use your bad to pay for things at all the parks' stores and restaurants. Just scan it, enter your pin code (to prevent kids or thieves from going on spending sprees), and your purchase will be billed to your room. I found it really convenient for small purchases (like snacks), which I'd normally pay for with cash. Not having to dig out my wallet all the time while visiting the food booths at Epcot, for example, was nice. Heck, I could have actually left my wallet back in the hotel room if I wanted. Speaking of food, resort guests can also buy dining plans and put those on their bands as well (whether or not the dining plan is a good deal compared to paying fo food normally depends on what and how much you eat). But enough about the hotel, let's talk about what I actually did...

Well, we'll talk about it on Friday anyway. For now, I really need to get going.



4/7/2014 Five updates a week

Assuming nothing happens to mess up my schedule, Pebble Version will update Monday - Friday from today through early May (probably May 6). As usual when on that schedule, only the comic will update every day, news posts will remain on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. There will be some commentary and Timmy Tonka strips showing up at some point as well.

That travelogue entry about my Disney trip (which has been delayed way too long), should finally be ready on Wednesday (I just finished with the photos, but it's a bit too late to write the entry itself). I may do one about my brief trip to Boston as well (haven't decided yet). But for now, I'm off.

See you tomorrow for another comic, and Wednesday for that travelogue.


4/4/2014 Still recovering

The weekly bonus comic is up! Click the TWC button and vote to see it!

This is the longest lasting cold I've had in ages. Though it seems like it's nearly run its course (finally). Assuming I'm right about that, PV should be switching to five updates per week (Mon - Fri) starting on Monday. I have one last travelogue entry to do, but that'll have to wait for next week as well, seeing as I haven't even gotten all the photos sorted yet (post-trip catch up combined with this cold has slowed me down a bit). Hopefully though, I'll be caught up on everything by the end of the weekend. If I'm lucky, I'll not only get caught up, but have enough time to go see Captain America as well.

See you Monday!


4/2/2014 Alcatraz

Time for another very belated travelogue entry.

Sunday (the 23rd): Alcatraz
I visited the majority of San Francisco's major attractions on my previous trips, but there was on I'd never gotten to, Alcatraz. For anyone who isn't familiar with the name, Alcatraz was once the country's most secure prison, the place where problem prisoners were sent. Set on a small island in the San Francisco Bay, it was thought to be inescapable. Actually, there was one person who managed to get off the island and swim to the mainland, only to be immediately arrested before he could get anywhere. And there was one more famous escape attempt where three people tunneled out of their cells and escaped on a makeshift raft. Though it's never been determined whether they successfully escaped or drowned in the attempt.
But anyway, Alcatraz has been much more than a prison. It started as an army fort, was converted into a military prison during the Civil War, and turned into a federal prison after that. It was shut down in 1963, only to be taken over by a group of American Indians in the 70's who wanted to make a point about land rights. They were eventually evicted, and the island was cleaned up and turned into a national park.
History lesson aside, it's a very popular tourist destination. Useful tip for anyone who may want to visit, tickets tend to sell out at least several days in advance so it's best to plan ahead and purchase them online a while before your visit. I started out walking to the pier to catch the ferry to Alcatraz (it is an island, after all). From the dock, it's a bit of a walk to the top of the hill where the cellblock is. There are a lot of other buildings along the way. During its more active periods, Alcatraz was practically a small town, housing a number of employees and their families. Some of them are fairly intact, but quite a lot of them have fallen into ruin (aided by some fires during that Indian occupation). I've got to say though, these are some of the nicest and most artistic ruined buildings I've ever seen (outside of ruined castles, which are a different matter entirely).
The cell block itself features a self guided audio tour, which did a good job of explain how the prison worked while guiding me to all the highlights. There were also fairly frequent presentations on how the cell doors could be opened and closed from a single location with a rather clever system. There were other special presentations throughout the day. I caught an interesting one about Al Capone while I was there (Did you know he was the one we have to thank for expiration dates on milk?).
There prison itself was interesting but the real high point of the trip, and something I really didn't expect, were the gardens. They were apparently started by the soldiers way back when and further expanded by the prisoners later on. Not only were the plants and flowers beautiful, but the island features a lot of amazing views of San Francisco as well and is also home to a large number of birds. My favorite was the snowy egret, mainly because its cries are pretty hilarious (ignore the more ordinary seagull cries in the background of that video, the egret cries are the ones that sound like some baby burbling by the microphone).
Once I'd seen all there was to see on Alcatraz, I caught a ferry back to the pier and walked around a bit (watched the sea lions, stopped by the old arcade, tried out a mirror maze, etc.). I eventually ended up on Telegraph Hill, a rather high end residential part of the city. More interestingly, there's a colony of cherry-headed conure (a small parrot type bird native to South America) living there. Apparently they started out as escaped/released pets that took to the area and established a colony. They're pretty, very loud, and fun to watch. They also don't seem to like sharing their perches.
After that, it was time to get ready for my overnight flight back to Orlando (which got delayed quite a bit and was very bumpy). That aside, it was a really fun day and I highly recommend Alcatraz for anyone looking to do some touring in San Francisco.


3/31/2014 GDC 2014

Well, I'm back at my apartment and back to work. Sorry for the guest comic today. I got a little cold over the weekend, so I was trying to get some extra sleep to speed up recovery. But that meant less time to work on this week's strips. Well, at least I can get the first travelogue entry up.

Wednesday - Thursday (the 19th - 21st): GDC 2014
The 2014 Game Developers Conference (like most years) had some pretty amazing speakers. Unfortunately, the pass you need to actually go to their sessions is ridiculously expensive. So, as usual, I spent most of my time on the expo floor. And, as usual, it was filled with booths advertising different software and hardware for use in game development. VR headsets, and things you can do with them, were an up and coming theme this year, with both the Oculus and Sony's Morpeous on display (neither of which I ended up trying, do to extremely long lines). One cool spin off product I saw is the Omni, it combines with the Oculus, giving you a rig, shoes, and gun, to turn any PC FPS into a more full on VR experience. The newest version of game engines like Unreal, CryEngine, and Gamebryo were also a big focus. On a side note, I was pleased to see that my textbook (Interactive Storytelling for Video Games), which my publisher had at its booth, sold out before the end of the show.
Other show highlights included the annual award show, which was fun though I disagreed with a number of the picks, a display from The Video Game History Museum, and a game trivia game show (I won a t-shirt). I even got to meet a bunch of Japanese developers (no one too famous) at the IGDA Japan party. All in all, it was a good conference. I learned a lot, made some good contacts, and got leads on a few promising new books and software programs. Some year though, I really need to get enough money together for an All Access pass.


3/28/2014 More flying

Click the TWC button on the left to vote and see the new bonus comic!

Well, my Disney vacation is over and now it's off to Boston for the weekend for my Grandma's birthday. Not really looking forward to another set of flights, but at least the times are better than my San Francisco flights and I'm on Jet Blue, which tends to have pretty nice planes and service. My flight is still fairly early though, and I'm stuck with the choice of getting that first travelogue entry done or getting a half decent amount of sleep. And, after that rather miserable night flight when leaving San Francisco, I'd rather not miss another night of sleep. Sorry about that. Assuming nothing messes up my travel plans, I'll be sure to get it done for Monday.



3/26/2014 Coming up...

Hey, we haven't seen these guys in a while, have we? For those of you wondering why they didn't show up back in Lilycove, now you know. Looks like Brendan and May are going to have some trouble after their gym battle...

My San Francisco trip went well. I've got a couple of travelogue updates planned. The first will be about GDC and San Francisco in general, while the second will focus on the trip I took to Alcatraz on Sunday. I was really hoping to have the first of those ready for today, but I only just managed to finish sorting through my pictures so it'll have to wait until Friday.

If you read about my travel plans in previous news posts, you may remember that I was planning to meet my mom in Orlando on Monday and spend a few days at Disney before flying up north to my Grandma's birthday. Well, I'm at Disney but, unfortunately, my mom isn't. In a a twist of extremely bad luck (and timing), my dad broke his knee on Sunday. Thankfully, he should recover ok (though he needs to have surgery on it today), but he'll take at least a few weeks to recover. Naturally, my mom had to cancel her travel plans at the last minute to take care of him. But it would have been tricky to cancel all our Orlando reservations at the last minute like that (at least if we wanted to get all the money back), plus I'm still flying out of Orlando on Friday morning for that party. So for those and a couple other reasons, I decided it would work out best if I went to Disney myself. Tried to invite some friends along, but unfortunately everyone who lives anywhere nearby either already had their spring break earlier in the month or can't get off work on such short notice. But I can still have fun by myself. I don't know if I'll have too much to say about the parks themselves, since I've already written quite a lot about them, but I do plan to do a travelogue entry about the whole Disney resort experience.

Finally, thanks to a very generous reader, the donation gauge for the month is full! That means there'll be another batch of commentary and some more Timmy Tonka strips coming up next month. The main comic will also be switching to five updates a week (Mon - Fri) for the month! Though, since I'll have a bunch of post-trip stuff to catch up on, I may wait until the second week of April to start the new update schedule and keep it going a few days into May. We'll see what happens.

See you Friday!


3/21/2014 Heads up

This week's bonus comic is up, and all you need to do to see it is click the TWC button and vote for Pebble Version!

I don't have too much time to talk right now. GDC is going well, San Francisco is the same mix of fun and weird as always, and Indonesian food is as awesome as I remembered. I'll get a whole travelogue entry or two written up for this trip at some point, so you'll get all the details (or at least the ones worth talking about) then.

As a heads up, there might not be a PV update on Monday. My flight back to Florida is actually overnight on Sunday and I'll be between hotels from Sunday morning until Monday evening so I may not have internet access during that time. Whether or not I manage a Monday update, PV should update normally on Wednesday and Friday.

Have a good weekend!


3/19/2014 GDC time

Well, GDC proper starts today (though if you have an expensive enough pass, there was some stuff Monday and Tuesday), so it's time to hit the show floor and see what I can learn. Someday though, I really need to get the (extremely overpriced) all access pass. As always, there's so many amazing speakers lined up this year. Keiji Inafune, James Mielke, Ken Levine, Koji Igarashi, Eugene Jarvis...and the list goes on. Maybe if I'm really lucky I'll bump into some of those guys in the Expo or at one of the other events. Though that's probably wishful thinking. From past experience, the more "famous" people tend to avoid areas where they're likely to get swarmed by fans (there might not be many places like that for game designers, but the GDC Expo floor is certainly one of them).

Anyway, I'll talk more about the conference and anything interesting I end up doing here in San Francisco another time. I got very little sleep prior to my flight here and need to rest up a bit before everything gets started for the day.



3/17/2014 And I'm off

Well, sorta. My flight isn't until tomorrow morning, but I'll be staying in a hotel tonight since I don't live all that close to the airport. Assuming everything goes smoothly, Wednesday and Friday's comics should update normally.

If I'm lucky, I may be able to catch The Wind Rises today, which would be cool. If not, I'll probably have to wait until it comes on out on Blu-ray. Unfortunately, while I did get caught up on my work before this trip, I wasn't able to finish Lightning Returns so I'll have to take a break from it for a couple of weeks, which is disappointing. I didn't finish reading Words of Radiance either (the long awaited second volume in Brandon Sanderson's Stormlight Archive series), but that I can bring with me. Not entirely happy about it, considering how big and heavy the book is, but the story is way too good for me to stop now. If you're not familiar with The Stormlight Archive, and have any interest in epic fantasy, I highly recommend picking up the first volume, The Way of Kings, and giving it a read. It's quickly becoming one of my favorites.

Anyway, I have to got ready for the trip. Later!


3/14/2014 Coming up...

The weekly voter bonus comic is up! Vote using the TWC button to see it!

The next couple of weeks are going to be pretty busy, with a series of three trips back to back. Pebble Version will update normally on Monday. After that, I don't expect to miss any updates, but I'll be staying in some hotels I've never visited before, so I can't be 100% sure about the internet. Updates will probably be a couple hours earlier or later than usual though. I'll be sure to post some travelogue entries if anything interesting happens. For now though, I've still got a lot to get done before I leave.

Have a good weekend!


3/12/2014 Finished!

The remaining commentary I owe you guys (strips 256 - 260) is done, completing the current set (241 - 260).

See you Friday!


3/10/2014 One more busy week

After this week, things should calm down for me. Well, sorta. I've got two weeks of traveling then a return to my normal work schedule. I'm looking forward to the trips though (which include my annual trip to the Game Developers Conference and spending some time at Disney with my mom). And after that, there'll really be only a little over a month until summer break. As for my summer plans? Well, they're still a work in progress for various reasons, though some big trips are in the cards.

Anyway, I don't have a lot of time to talk right now, but I did get a bit more of that commentary done (strips 251 - 255). The remaining five should be done later this week.


3/7/2014 Continuing on

The weekly bonus comic is up! Just vote to see it (use the TWC button on the left). Also, I got the next chunk of that commentary up (strips 246 - 250). Still 10 more strips to go, which I'm hoping to finish next week.

Not too much else to say right now... Work is still keeping me pretty busy. Once Upon a Time in Wonderland returned from a long break today and it's just as awesome as before (despite the death of a character I liked). Also, while I may write a more detailed piece on the subject sooner or later, I want to say that Lightning Returns is a good game and doesn't deserve much of the criticism it's been getting. Is it the pinnacle of the Final Fantasy series, or even the XIII trilogy? No. But the battle system is good, as is the character customization. And all the things I was worried about (and that I've heard people harping on) such as the timer and outfits are really non-issues (or, at worst, a minor annoyance). Even the story hasn't been bad. It hasn't been especially amazing or gripping either but, so far anyway, there's nothing about it that's made me dislike it either. Anyway, I might say more once I've found the time to finish the game but even if the story doesn't pick up (or takes a nosedive), it's still a lot of a fun to play and features some rather cool ideas and systems.

Have a good weekend!


3/5/2014 Commentary!

Instead of doing a news post today, I started on the commentary I owe you guys from last month's donations. Specifically, I wrote the commentary for strips 241 - 245. I plan to go through 260 for this batch, so you've got another 15 strips worth coming sometime over the next week or two.

See you Friday!


3/3/2014 News posts

It was pointed out to me a while back that I'd been doing a lot of those "sorry I don't have time to write anything" type of news posts, so I've been trying to avoid them. Of course, I never did those without reason. Some of these post take quite a while to write and, unlike the comics themselves, I usually don't do them in advance, opting to write them just before I upload the newest update. So, when I get extra busy due to work, lack of a comic buffer, or some other reason, I don't always have time to write much unless I want to stay up pretty late. Some days I'm willing to do that. Others, it doesn't seem like a good idea. Right now, for example, I had a couple of late nights in a row (not to mention the stress and extra work I mentioned), I've got work in the morning and, while it's not overly late yet, my body is telling me that I really shouldn't be staying up any longer. So, all in all, I don't have time to get into any of the longer subjects I wanted to talk about. But hey, I guess I did end up writing a little something for today. I'm going to keep doing my best to avoid those bare bones "no time to write" news posts. Short on time or not, I should be able to write something if I try, so long as I'm not completely out of it.

Anyway, that was a bit random. I'll aim for something a bit more interesting on Wednesday.


2/28/2014 A weekend suggestion

The weekly bonus comic is up and all you have to do to see it is click the TWC button on the left and confirm your vote!

I don't know about you, but I'm glad this week is almost over. It's been busy and stressful and, while Fridays are normally a bit of a break for me (or at least a chance to catch up on errands and various projects of my own), today is looking to be more of the same. Unfortunately, next week will probably be almost as bad. Ditto with the week after... Guess I'd just better hope that nothing else comes along to make things worse...

But, on a more cheerful note, The Wind Rises comes out in US theaters tomorrow (it had a limited release a week ago). It's the latest movie from Japan's legendary Studio Ghibli and may very well be the last movie to be directed by Hayao Miyazaki (the reason studio Ghibli is so legendary). If you've got a chance, I recommend going to see it. Miyazaki's movies are amazing and aren't just for hard-core anime fans. Film critics and ordinary views alike are captivated by his masterful fusion of art, music, and storytelling. I haven't seen The Wind Rises yet myself, but everyone I know who has says it's excellent, and I have seen all of Miyazaki other movies, all of which are brilliant. I'd be going tomorrow myself, except that I have to go in to work to help out with some things and that's going to be eating up most of my day. I'm hoping for Sunday, but it's looking like the nearby theaters might not actually get The Wind Rises, which is problematic (and rather depressing). As much as I want to see it, Orlando is a long drive just to see a movie, especially with how busy things are for me right now. I'll figure something out though, I'd rather not have to wait until the Blu-ray like I did with Up on Poppy Hill (Ghibli's previous movie).

See you Monday!


2/26/2014 Plans

Between work, my personal projects, and various life stuff, I've been working on a lot of different things over the last couple of weeks. One thing I've been doing a bit of here and there is planning for spring break, which is coming up for me near the end of March. It'll be starting out with the tail end of my annual trip to the Game Developers Conference, and finishing up with a brief trip up north for my grandmother's birthday. But in the middle of that my mom will be coming to Florida for a few days (the first time any of my family members have visited since I moved here) and we'll be hitting a bunch of Disney stuff. Now, when I go to Disney I normally just drive down for a day. But it's a two hour drive each way and, since we're going to be there for several days in a row, driving back and forth all the time would be a real pain (and kinda expensive with current gas prices). Besides, there isn't much of anything to see in the area where I live. So we're going to stay in Orlando and I figured it would be cool to stay at a Disney hotel and get the whole comprehensive resort experience. But it's a bit more than just staying in a convenient location. Disney recently upgraded their systems to give visitors (especially those staying at their hotels) all sorts of options to help plan, customize, and otherwise prepare for their trip. It's actually pretty cool. When the time comes, I don't know if I'll have too much to write about the parks themselves (seeing how much I've already talked about them), but I may do a travelogue entry about the whole resort and planning system and how well it ends up working.

Unfortunately, outside of Aurora's Nightmare, most of the other things I've been working on are far less interesting. For various reasons, this is actually turning into one of the most stressful "semesters" I've had since moving to Florida. It didn't start out that way, but that's certainly the way it's shaping up. Sigh... Still, there's just a bit over two months to go and I've got spring break and that GDC trip in the middle to break things up. And hey, a lot of great video games came out recently so that'll help keep me entertained. Assuming I can find time to play them, anyway. Honestly, I think I'll be lucky if I make it through half of this spring's big titles before summer.

Well, I should get going. Last week was a busy one (partly for fun reasons though) and it looks like things are going to stay that way until GDC (though probably with more work and less fun outtings). Nothing to do except keep working though so I'll see you Wednesday!


2/24/2014 Concerts

Travelogue time.

Monday & Thursday (February 17th & 20th)
I gotta say, if nothing else, my time in Florida has give me the chance to see a lot of great concerts, so I've been keeping an eye out for this year's events. Back during winter break, I learned that The Beach Boys would be having a concert in Jacksonville. They're one of the bands I'd be wanting to see, so I made sure to get a ticket. When I was doing that, I noticed that The Four Tops and The Temptations would be performing later that same week. If you didn't know, I'm a big fan of 60's music, so I got a ticket to that show as well.
I got to downtown Jacksonville a bit early on both days. General tip, it's a business district, meaning most stuff there shuts down around 5 PM, so it's not the greatest place to hang out or even eat (though there are some restaurants that stay open). Anyway, The Beach Boys concert was on Monday. Two of the original members are still in the band and they still sound really good. They played all their biggest hits and the whole concert was a lot of fun. While they got a bit overshadowed once the British Invasion hit in the mid 60's, they really were one of the best bands of the era.
The Four Tops and The Temptations shared a single concert, each playing for around half the time (they never played together though). Both groups only have a single original member remaining, and neither one is a lead singer, but the replacements did a good job. While each individual group had less time than The Beach Boys, they still managed to work in quite a lot of their hits.
If you like their music (and really, how can you not), I'd highly recommend seeing any of the three groups if the get the chance.


2/21/2014 Almost done...

There's a new bonus comic up...sorta. There was a mixup with the order in which the last bonus comic and this one got displayed, so this one actually comes before that one, though I don't think it got posted before... There's a different bonus comic up anyway and things will be all sorted out in time for next week's. In other site news, check the donation bar below. It looks like you guys will be getting a new batch of commentary in the not too distant future...

Well, this week is nearing the end and I'm rather glad. It's really been a pretty crazy week for me for a lot of reasons. Some are good. I went to a friend's party, the Civil War reenactment, and two concerts (expect a write-up on those come Monday). I also mostly finished training my new pokémon team and, over the last couple of days, got rather hooked on Danganronpa. On the other hand, despite getting this past Monday off for the holidy, work has been pretty stressful this week and there's things I really need to get done that I just haven't found the time for since I've been running around so much, along with a few more minor issues. So yeah, I'm hoping I can use the weekend to both catch up on my to-do list and relax a little. Though whether or not I'll have time for both... Well, we'll see.

Anyway, I hope all of you have a good weekend.


2/19/2014 The Civil War

It's been awhile, but it's time for another Florida travelogue entry!

Sunday (February 16th): The Battle of Olustee Reenactment
Unless you're a pretty serious Civil War buff, you've probably never heard of the Battle of Olustee. It was the largest engagement in Florida, but relatively small compared to the war's more famous battlefields. It also didn't play a large role in the progress of the war. But anyway, a bit over a year before the end of the war, the Union launched an effort to take over Florida in order to cut off one of the Confederates' major supply lines. In the end, they took over Jacksonville and other parts of north and east Florida, but were defeated at the Battle of Olustee, preventing them from continuing on to cut the supply lines or take over the state as a whole. The battle took place a little outside of Lake City, involved about 10,000 men, evenly divided between Union and Confederate forces, and resulted in around 3,000 casualties (about two thirds of them being on the Union side).
This year is the 150th anniversary of the battle, and the 38th year of the annual reenactment. It's also the first year I actually heard of it, despite it being a relatively short drive from where I live, so I decided to check it out. There's actually two parts to the event, the Olustee Festival in Lake City on Friday and Saturday (featuring vendor booths, musicians, etc.) and the battle reenactment at the Olustee State Park on Saturday and Sunday. I didn't make it to the festival, though from what I heard it seems fairly typical as far as those things go. But I did spend a day at the reenactment, so let's talk about that.
I've never been to a Civil War reenactment before, but apparently there are a number of them around the county (especially the south east). They actually have a bit in common with renaissance festivals. The first area I visited was the Sutlers camp, which had a number of shops selling both antique and replica Civil War era clothing, weapons, and other items. Seeing as a lot of the items were handmade, prices could get a bit on the expensive side, though there were plenty of affordable things as well. As with a renaissance faire, most of the shop keepers and a lot of the attendees were dressed in period appropriate garb.
After I finished browsing, I decided to visit the army camps. Both the Confederate and Union armies had their own rather large camps. They were interesting to look around in their own right, but there was a lot going on as well such as food cooking over camp fires, preachers leading Sunday services before the big battle, and reenactors discussing all sorts of topics related to the war.
I eventually made my way back to the Sutlers area to get some lunch. Unfortunately, while the shops were very authentic the food stalls weren't. Still, I got a decent meal. And, to add that authentic Civil War touch, I picked up some hardtack (a typical army food at the time). My advice, don't try hardtack. It's essentially a very thick, very hard cracker with virtually no flavor that still manages to have a horrible bitter aftertaste.
After lunch, I headed over to the battlefield a bit early to get a seat. Good thing I did, as it got really crowded. The battle reenactment started out fairly slow, with a few Union scouts encountering a small Confederate force, but soon began to escalate. There were even pyrotechnics. They didn't fire actual cannonballs, there were charges placed throughout the field to replicate the effect. The cannons did fire off some pretty cool smoke rings though. Eventually, both sides end up with a fairly large number of people (there were probably a few hundred reenactors all together), though nowhere near the 10,000 from the actual battle, of course, and things got fairly intense (and loud, the video doesn't quite do it justice).
The battle went for a bit over an hour and pretty much wrapped up the day (though I think the Sutlers stayed open for a while longer). All in all, while I can't say I like Civil War reenactments are much as I do renaissance fairs, it was a fun and interesting way to spend a day and I think everyone who lives in the US can do with the occasional history lesson.


2/17/2014 Munchkin

I played Munchkin for the first time in ages over the weekend. Reminded me what an awesome game it is, at least so long as you have a few people to play with. I used to play almost every week with friends when I was in college, and I miss it. If you've never played Munchkin before, and you like board and/or card games, I highly recommend checking it out (you can find it at most game stores and a lot of Barnes & Nobles as well). It's a fun game, leads to some great group dynamics as you bounce back and forth between helping and backstabbing the other players, and the cards are hilarious. Not to mention that you can mix all the sets together, leading to progressively more epic (and crazier) games.

Well, I did do something worth a travelogue entry yesterday, but I've got more stuff going on today (I'm off work for the holiday) so I've gotta run. I should have the travelogue entry ready for Wednesday.


2/14/2014 Weather

This week's bonus comic is up for everyone who votes on TWC!

Florida has unsurprisingly avoided the worst of the big winter storms that have been hitting other parts of the country this year. Though there have been some pretty cold days and the temperature keeps jumping up and down by 20+ degrees. I hope none of you guys are having too much trouble with that latest storm up north. Though, to be honest, my first reaction when I think of said storm is "I hope it doesn't delay those packages I'm waiting for". Kinda sad, I know, but that's the way people are. It's so much easier to worry about how an event relates to us than other people, even if they have it much worse. Still, that's something to work on. As annoying as it'll be if my packages are delayed, that's a pretty minor issue compared to all the serious problems the storms can cause for the people who live up there. So that's really what I should worry about, if anything.

Have a good weekend, and expect a travelogue entry to two next week.


2/12/2014 Uncommon sports

I was watching a bit of the Winter Olympics the other day while waiting for another show to start and men's curling came on. It got me thinking. First off, how do people get into a sport like curling? It lacks the power, speed, excitement, and general popularity that draw people to sports like baseball, football, and soccer. It's also not something you can just play on your own for fun (you need three people, ice, etc.). So what attracts beginning players? Even more puzzling were the announcers. They clearly knew all about both curling itself and all its major players in great detail. How do you get so interested in such an obscure sport that you want to study it in depth and learn everything there is about it?

Nothing against curling itself (though I personally find it pretty boring to watch), I could say the same about quite a lot of those more unusual Olympic events. It just makes me curious because I can't see any sort of common events that would draw someone to them given how uncommon they are.

See you Friday!


2/10/2014 Random thoughts

Did you know that petty theft can also be spelled petit theft? Doesn't look right, does it? I saw it on TV a few minutes ago and assumed it was a typo until I looked it up. Weird...

In Pokémon news, I managed to get everything on my trade list and only have one pokémon left to breed before I can start training my new team. I even managed to get not one, but two, shiny staryu during the breeding. Unfortunately, neither one was quite what I needed for my team, so they're just going in my collection. I was rather hoping for a shiny honedge as well (its alternate color scheme is pretty cool) but I got the IV spread I wanted fairly quickly and, as cool as a shiny would be, I don't want to keep breeding for who knows how long until I get one. Besides, there's no guarantee that, if/when I did breed one, it'd have the right IVs anyway. Same thing with froakie (the other shiny I'd really love to have). Ah well, it's not like that would make them any stronger.

My work schedule is going to be changing for the next five weeks, mostly for the worst unfortunately. But I've got some fun stuff to look forward to next week, so that's something.

Oh, I saw The Lego Movie Friday. If you ever loved playing with Legos as a kid (or still do now, for that matter), you really should go see it. It's a bit corny but a lot of fun, features some awesome Lego creations, and did a great job of bringing back memories of the all the crazy adventures I used to dream up with my own Legos. Makes me wish I had said Legos with me right now so I could build some stuff. Unfortunately, except for a handful of mini-figures, they'll all in storage back in Colorado. Sigh... Well, I'll have them back sooner or later.

I guess I should probably get going. Sorry for the lack of focus in this news post. Blame a day spent doing taxes. See you later!


2/7/2014 In the bank

The weekly TWC voter bonus comic is up!

If you didn't notice yet, Pokémon Bank was finally released on Wednesday, which resulted in me spending a whole lot of time transferring my collection over from Black. Anyway, with that done, here's my updated trade list.

I'm looking for:
2 x Shaymin
6IV Ditto (ideally non US)
Y Exclusive Mega Evolution Stones (Aggronite, Charizardite Y, Heraconite, Houndoomite, Mewtwonite Y)
Shiny Stones and Dusk Stones would be nice too, though I can get more myself so I wouldn't trade too much for them.

I have for trade:
All Pokémon from Gens I - IV (except Shaymin)
I can also breed the first form of anything from Gens V - VI that can lay eggs
Assorted event Pokémon (mostly Gen I - IV legendaries)
Shiny Pokémon: Nidoran Male, Nidorhino, Nidoking, Loudred, Exploud, Biberal
Breeding Rejects with assorted natures: 6IV Fraokie (normal ability), 5IV Froakies (normal and Hidden ability), 5IV Eevees (both normal abilities), 5IV Sandshrews (both abilities)
Extras of a few non-version exclusive Mega Evolution Stones (Blastoisite, Ampharosite, Abomasnowite)

Have a good weekend!


2/5/2014 Names

Lately, I've been thinking a bit about how important names are. Not so much for people, places, games, and the like (though they're certainly important too), but how you can change the way the majority of people perceive something by what name you use. It's a practice that seems especially prevalent in politics these days. I really don't want to get very political in these news posts (it's something I purposely avoid) but, just for an example, let's take global warming. Everyone remember that? I won't go into my thoughts on the subject, but let's just look at the name. A few years back, you couldn't go ten minutes without hearing about the dangers of global warming. Now, you hardly ever heard the term "global warming" anymore. It's still a hot button topic in science and politics, but now it's referred to as "climate change". So why the new name? Well, global warming is all about the theory that the Earth is getting warmer due to humans messing up the environment. But, over the the last few years, we've have a lot of really harsh winters. Record breaking ones, in many cases. After weather like that, it's a lot harder to convince the average person that the planet is getting warmer. So "global warming" got rebranded as "climate change". "Global warming" is a bit hard to accept when we're getting hammered by huge winter storms. "Climate change", on the other hand, sounds much more possible. After all, that's a nice generic term. It could even have something to do with cold weather, right?
For another example, back in the 80's, Nintendo changed the name of their Family Computer to the Nintendo Entertainment System (or NES), in an effort to distance it from the video game industry, which was currently in the middle of a devastating crash, leaving retailers reluctant to stock any sort of video game related items.
And that's only a couple of many different examples I could list. Politics, religion, marketing, all of them have a tendency of changing what they call things to better fit with peoples' current moods and opinions. It's a little sneaky when you think about it., but it often works.

And on that note, I think I'll be changing this comic's name from Pebble Version to The Greatest Web Comic in Existence :-P Kidding, of course, though I bet that would get the site a lot more hits (and a lot of flames).



2/3/2014 Hmm...

I don't have much to say today. I had fun yesterday at the local medieval faire, had considerably less fun watching the Superbowl (I don't care about it all that much but really, Denver's performance was just sad), and am continuing to work on my new Pokémon team. Speaking of which, check the previous news post if you're interested in training, or traveling to Japan. I talked about that last time too.

Anyway, I have a couple of topics I've been meaning to write about, but they'll take a while to type and I don't really have the time right now. At least not if I want to get a decent amount of sleep before work so they'll have to wait.



1/31/2014 Japan and Pokémon

Friday's bonus comic is up! Click the TWC button to vote and see it.

Remember, I'm looking for opinions on and interest in those Japan tour itineraries I made. If you've been wanting to go to Japan but aren't sure about what to see or just how to get around, this could be your chance. I've done my best to minimize the costs and I'd love to run one of these things if there's enough interest.

I'm currently in the middle of building a new pokémon team, as well as filling in a couple holes in my pokédex. If anyone wants to trade, I'm currently looking for the following:
Pokémon: Yveltal, Genosect, Ditto (6 perfect IVs),
Friend Safaris: Sandshrew, Ditto
Items: Shiny Stones, all Mega Evolution stones that are only available in Y.

As far as pokémon go, I only want legit ones. No hacked pokémon. For trade, I'm somewhat limited until Bank is released but I've got a large collection of 5 IV Froakies (with both abilities and a variety of natures), I'm working on breeding some high IV Eevees, Bulbasaurs, and Bagons (with regular and dream world abilities), and I can get Gabite and a number of others with the same. Once Bank is released, I should have everything from Gens 1 - 4 (and probably 5 as well).

Have a good weekend!


1/29/2014 Meh

That one word pretty much sums up my feelings about yesterday as a whole. The weather, work, the game I was playing... Not one of the worst days I've had, but certainly not a very good one either. And, as a result, I'm running late so I'll have to cut this post short. Hopefully, today will go better.


1/27/2014 Another week

Well, the past few days have been interesting. I got a mild case of the flu toward the end of last week. That was annoying, especially since it'd been three years since I'd gotten anything worse than an allergy. But it was mild and I recovered enough to meet up with Silver and Colly on Friday (friends from the PV Forums, who were down here on vacation). We hung out at Downtown Disney and Disney Quest, which was a lot of fun. Other than that, I also finished my usual errands and a bunch of other assorted tasks, making it a moderately productive weekend as well.

Not a whole lot to talk about though, and I probably shouldn't stay up too late (don't want to risk getting sick again) so I'll see you Wednesday.


1/24/2014 Want to see Japan?

This week's bonus comic is up! Just click the TWC button on the left and vote for Pebble Version to see it.

If you didn't see Wednesday's news post, I made some potential itineraries for that Japan tour I mentioned in the past. I'd love to lead one, but I need to know that there's enough interest before I start finalizing plans and opening it for sign-ups. So take a look and, if one or more of the itineraries interest you, let me know. Let me know which one is your favorite, or if there are some other places and/or activities you'd like to see added. If I get enough feedback, this could very well happen. If I don't hear from enough people, it won't (at least not anytime soon).

That's all for now, so have a good weekend!


1/22/2014 Japan tours

I had a fun (though busy) weekend. In the end, I don't think anything I did is really worth a travelogue entry, but I did get the itineraries for that potential Japan tour done. They're all rather rough (with details subject to change if this project advances to the next stage), and I was running a bit late so I didn't more as much details into some of the descriptions as I could have. But anyway, take a look. If there's a particular itinerary that interests you, please let me know. I need to know there's enough people who are both willing and able to pay for one of these things before I invest a lot of time planning it out further.


1/20/2014 Bed time

I got back pretty late Sunday night, and I need to get some sleep, so I don't have much to say right now. Look for those itineraries, and maybe a travelogue updates, later in the week.


1/17/2014 Weekend!

Friday's bonus comic is up, just vote to see it!

Well, it's a four day weekend for me. As I mentioned last time, I've got a lot of plans, both for work and play. Expect some rough Japan tour itineraries either Monday or Wednesday. Right now though, I'm running late so I'm off.

Have a great weekend!


1/15/2014 Plans

This week still has a while to go, but I'm already looking forward to the coming holiday weekend. I'll be going somewhere one day, though I haven't quite settled on where yet. Other than that, I plan to get a few things on my to-do list finished. I'm thinking I'll also throw together some rough itineraries for potential Japan tours so I can get an more solid idea on costs per person and how many people I'd need to make it a success. If you don't know what I'm talking about, I recommend scrolling down the page and taking a look at my previous news post.

My other big weekend project (or maybe pre-weekend project)? Figuring out why UPS hasn't delivered a package yet. I missed the first two attempts (they always show up early on days when I work), stayed home all day Friday for the final attempt, only for them to be a complete no show. They didn't come Monday or Tuesday either and the estimated delivery date if I check the tracking number online just keeps changing. I don't get it. Did all their trucks break down or the employees go on strike or something? I'm not even sure why they couldn't have just dropped it here the first time. Sure I'm glad they required a signature when they delivered my new laptop, but this box is just a few cooking supplies I haven't been able to find in the nearby stores. Total value, about $30. I doubt there's much risk of someone stealing my flour.

Anyway, it's not the weekend the yet so I've got other things to work on now. Later!


1/13/2014 Want to go to Japan?

As you know if you've read my travelogues, I've done a lot of traveling in Japan. I planned a lot of trips though, from solo day trips I'd take over the weekend, to more elaborate several week itineraries for when my family visited. For a long time, I've been thinking that it would be fun to lead an actual tour group there (probably during the summer of 2014 or 2015, considering my current work schedule). And I'm curious, would anyone be interested? I've got ideas for an "otaku" (anime/manga/game fan) tour, a Japanese history/culture tour, a nature and hiking tour, and a more balanced "bit of everything" tour. Said tours could run for one to two weeks.

Price would vary considerably depending on length, itinerary, hotel type (and whether people are willing to share rooms), and whether or not most meals are included. I'd have to fully plan everything out to get a good estimate but I could see anywhere from around $600 per person (for a week long tour on a tight budget) to $3,000 per person for a fairly fancy longer tour. That's not including airfare (which is generally in the $800 - $1200 range from the continental US, though it can go higher or lower depending on where you depart from and when you book).

Anyway, if that sounds interesting, I'd love to hear from you. Especially in regards to your preferences in terms of length, cost, must see destinations, and the like. If I get enough interest, I can put together some potential itineraries and see if there's enough people serious about one or more of them to make it a reality.


1/10/2014 Meh

This week's voter bonus comic is a special one, featuring the winner of this year's Week of Randomness event on the Pebble Version Forums.

And...that's about it. I've been feeling kind of meh today (mentally, not physically). It's not that anything all that bad happened, a handful of relatively minor things, but nothing serious. Still, that type of stuff can sap my motivation sometimes, and this seems to be one of those days. And, as a result, I just can't think of anything to write. On the bright side, this news post is really the only thing on my to-do list that was affected, I actually had a really productive day overall.

But yeah, drawing a blank here so I'll see you Monday.


1/8/2014 Detectives

I hope none of you guys are having too much trouble with that big cold front. It's hitting Florida as well, though record breaking cold here is rather mild compared to the average winter in many of the places I've lived.

This is pretty random, but I was watching a bit of Detective Conan earlier while working on Aurora's Nightmare (speaking of which, remember that the new dev blog is now updating every Sunday) and I got to thinking. Now, I've never known or met a real detective but, if you do, here are some useful rules.

What to Do if You Meet a Great Detective:
1. Never ever invite a great detective to on kind of trip, social function, or other outting. If you do, it's pretty much guaranteed that someone will get murdered.
2. The above is especially true if you're planning to commit a murder. Yes a famous detective would make a great alibi, but they're bound to figure out your brilliant trick murder eventually.
3. If you ever find yourself attending the same social function or sharing a hotel, plane, train, ship, or anything else with a great detective, get out of there as soon as possible to avoid the inevitable murder spree. But be sure to leave with a group, or remain in full view of everyone until you're safely away. Something to try and ensure that you won't end up getting murdered on your way out.
4. If, for some reason, you're unable to leave, or the murders start before you get the chance, do your best to establish yourself as the detective's best friend, love interest, and/or assistant. If you're successful, you may find yourself in a number of life threatening situations, but you'll probably survive. Though you'll likely get stuck being dragged from one strange murder spree to another afterwards.
5. Finally, if you yourself are a great detective, just assume that someone is going to get murdered wherever you go and plan accordingly. Or, even better, do everyone a favor and never leave your house again.


1/6/2014 Finishing up the travelogue

Well, now that I've got the vast majority of my class prep work done and things are starting to calm down a bit, it's time for that last travelogue entry...

Tuesday (Dec 31st): New Year's Eve
There was a bit of debate about what to do on my last day in Hawaii but, in the end, we decided to go on another hike. Specifically the Kuaokala Loop. It's actually near that other west coast hike we did, except that it's up on top of the mountains instead of on the coast itself. Getting there also requires going through an air force base, so you need to get a permit and go through a checkpoint.
The scenery up there is quite a bit different than the other hikes I've done on Oahu. In fact, some sections reminded me quite a bit of Colorado. Though Colorado doesn't have snails like this. The trail wasn't all that steep, but it was long and there are some confusing intersections. We took a wrong turn at one point before eventually backtracking, probably adding at least a mile to the route. The views were impressive though, both of the coasts and the mountains. It was actually a pretty enjoyable trail overall, though getting lost and the fact that it seemed to go on for a lot longer than it was supposed to detracted from that a bit.
That evening, we went to Shokudo (a popular Japanese restaurant) to celebrate my birthday. While I wouldn't rank it quite as highly as the Japanese place we went to for my birthday last year, the food was great and it was a nice evening.
To wrap things up, since I was actually leaving on the morning of the 1st this time around, I wanted to see the New Year's fireworks this time. So my mom and I went down the beach to watch the show (the others were lazy, slept until just before midnight, and tried to watch from the apartment). While it wasn't one of the most intense fireworks shows I've see, it was very well done and they had some fireworks with unusual shapes and colors, which is always cool.
After that, there was time to grab a few hours of sleep and then it was off the airport. Here's one last pictures of Oahu, taken from the plane. As always, I really enjoyed my time there and hope I'll get to go back in the not too distant future. Which, so long as my parents' have that condo, seems pretty likely.


1/3/2014 Sleep...

The usual weekly bonus comic is up. Just vote (with the TWC button on the left) to see it.

I was hoping to get that last travelogue post up today, but that's not going to happen. I got back to my Florida apartment really late Wednesday night (or more like really early Thursday morning), with only enough time to get several hours of sleep before heading off to work. And that was after another late night / early morning from New Year's fireworks and my flight back to Florida. And between errands and preparing for the classes I'll be teaching (spring semester starts on Monday), I haven't even had time to go through my last batch of photos, much less write anything. So we'll shoot for Monday. If nothing goes wrong, I should have all the class prep done by then. With any luck, I'll have enough time left over to go through the photos and write the travelogue entry. In the meantime, remember that the Aurora's Nightmare Dev Blog will begin updating this Sunday (I wrote the post a while back, so it won't be influenced by my current schedule). For now, it will update every Sunday with progress updates, info about the game and characters, comments on the development process itself, and the like.

Well, I'm off to get a bit of sleep before returning to work (got a meeting and then more class prep). See you Monday!


1/1/2014 Happy New Year!

Well, it's a new year, and my birthday. Unfortunately, it's also the day before work starts up again, so I'll be spending today flying back to Florida. Since I have an early flight, and am going out to watch the fireworks soon, I'm going to end this post here and save the last part of my travelogue for Friday (or maybe Monday if I'm really busy with class prep).

Happy New Year!


12/30/2013 A bit of nature

Well, the year, and my vacation, are nearing an end. As a FYI, there's a slight chance Wednesday's update will be skipped due to New Year's Eve plans. More likely though, it'll just go up a little early or late.

Saturday (Dec 28th): Hiking in the Clouds
There wasn't much to write about over the last few days due to the holiday, iffy weather, and the like. I did go to the north shore at one point, but spent most of the time watching some big waves at Waimea Beach, where the water was closed off to everyone but strong swimmers with experience with those kind of conditions.
This afternoon, my family and I decided to take a hike. I've been wanting to do the one we got rained out on last year, but my dad has already done it (multiple times, apparently), and wanted to do something different. So we went on a different hike not too far from there which was supposed to have similar views. It started out nicely enough, and there were some excellent views of the valley below. Here's a shot of my mom, brother, and I near that same viewpoint. Later on, the hike started to get a lot more intense, featuring quite a lot of stairs and one place where you need to use a rope to get up a particularly steep part. Unfortunately, around that point we ended up in some really heavy cloud coverage, knocking visibility down to a few yards and blocking any and all views we might have had. So no view of the other islands. Not a bad hike though.
While the clouds mostly cleared up on our way back down, the sky did stay somewhat overcast for the rest of the day, leading to a rather cloudy sunset.
I finished out the day at the little movie theater in back of the Honolulu Museum of Art, which was doing a screening of the third Madoka Magika movie (Rebellion). It was pretty awesome, but also dark, shocking, and completely mind-blowing, while not going at all where I expected (from a story perspective). In other words, it's extremely true to the style and standards set by the Madoka anime and I'm glad I got to see it in an actual theater (one of the perks of being in an area with a large Japanese population).


12/27/2013 Mystery bonus!

This week's voter bonus comic is up!

Well, I don't have any travelogue stuff to write about today so, instead, I think I'll go ahead and announce that mystery bonus I owe you. Presenting, the Aurora's Nightmare Development Blog! People keep asking me how Aurora's Nightmare (my upcoming visual novel game) is progressing, so I decided that the best way to keep everyone in the loop (and build up a bit more hype) is to start a dev blog. Not only will I use it to make periodic progress reports, I'll also be talking about various aspects of the game (story, characters, structure, etc.) and its development process (art, design, music, etc.). For now, I'm planning to update it once a week (on Sundays), though updates might become more frequent later on. These weekly updates will be starting on January 5, but there's some basic content on the blog right now if you want to take a look.

On a side note, the look and layout of the blog are still something of a work in progress. I decided to try doing the blog in WordPress so I could easily incorporate some advanced features that I'm not sure how to code. I've worked with some existing WordPress sites in the past, but was never all that impressed. Sad to say, building one from scratch hasn't improved my opinion. Sure WP has some fancy stuff, but customization options are minimal. Installing pre-made themes is easy, but their customization options generally aren't much better than the default themes, and many of the better ones cost money. You can always build your own theme from scratch, but the only built in way to do that is by editing a bunch of css and php files. Doable, but there's a lot of files, some of which are really big and complicated, which makes tracking down the section of code you need to change for any given thing a real chore. And it doesn't help that the built in code editor is pretty lousy. I'm kind of regretting not just making a normal site instead. It wouldn't have all the features the WP version does, but it would look exactly the way I want it to and have been finished in a fraction of the time.

But, complaints aside, the blog is up and weekly updates will be starting soon. I hope you guys enjoy it, and that it further peaks your interest in Aurora's Nightmare.


12/25/2013 Culture and animals

Merry Christmas, everyone!  I don't celebrate it myself, but I'm sure most of your do and I have no reason be upset or offended by that. But this isn't the time to rant about the stupidity of political correctness. It's time for a travelogue!

Dec 23: The Polynesian Cultural Center
Monday morning, my mom, brother, and Hannah (his fiance) headed up to the north shore of the island. Our first stop was Turtle Bay, the area's only resort (nearly all the hotels on Oahu are either in Honolulu or Ko'olina). The beach there is partially enclosed by rocks and known for snorkeling. It does seem to be one of the best snorkeling spots that doesn't require a boat. I saw a number of fish (including a lion fish), an eel, and even a sea turtle. Plus, unlike Hanauma Bay (another well known snorkeling area), it's free.
After spending some time there, we split up. Noah and Hannah went off to do their own thing while my mother and I got dropped off at the Polynesian Cultural Center. It's a theme park of sorts, dedicated to the different island groups of Polynesia (kind of like a mini Epcot). It's divided into sections for the various islands. Each one has some assorted structures, some sort of activities you can take part in (I tried throwing a Tongan spear and learned an Aotearoan stick game), and a show of some kind. The shows are really the main attraction. Samoa had a pretty awesome one which showed how the native people pick and prepare coconuts. Tonga focused more on native music, while Tahiti and Fiji were all about dance. There was also a parade of sorts, with the groups from all the islands performing on canoes, and a pretty cool IMax movie about Hawaii. The park isn't all that big, but there are enough shows and other things to fill up the six or so hours it's open. My mom and I got there a little late, so we didn't see every show, but all the ones we did see were fun and I learned a bit about Polynesia in the process. While I didn't see them, for those with a bit more time and money, they also have daily luaus and a bit play/performance in the evenings. All in all, The Polynesian Cultural Center is a fun and somewhat educational place to visit. If you don't mind spending most of your time watching shows, it makes for an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon.

Dec 24: Hiking on the West Coast
Other than a stop at Ko'olina last winter for a snorkeling tour, I haven't really visited Oahu's west side. Well, today my whole family went there for a hike. The west side has its beaches and mountains, like the rest of the island, but it's the desert side, meaning that it's a lot more dry than other areas and therefor has a rather distinct look to it. The trail were took followed the coast. The scenery wasn't especially diverse but, between the mountains and the ocean, it was nice. We even spotted a number of whales as we went. No pictures of those, unfortunately. They were pretty far out plus you can never tell when or where a whale will surface, making it really difficult to get a decent picture. It's too bad though, one even breached.
The trail ended in a sandy area set aside for wildlife. Specifically albatross and monk seals. The seals were kind of hard to spot, since they blend in well with the rocks and like to just lay out on the sand and sleep. They're similar in size to the sealions I see in San Francisco and Seaworld, but their flippers are shorter so they have to wriggle across the ground on their bellies instead of waddling on their flippers.
After watching the animals for a while we walked back and got lunch at an organic farm which also runs a restaurant. Then back to Honolulu just in time to catch a really nice rainbow. Later in the day, I spotted a mongoose while at a farmers' market. They're not native to Hawaii, they were brought here as a counter to the rat population (another nonnative species, though they came here accidentally. Unfortunately, they're mostly active at different times of the day so that never really worked out. That aside, I think this is the first one I've seen in the wild
Finally, while walking around Waikiki a bit later, we saw this extremely awesome gingerbread village in one of the hotel lobbies. Impressive, huh? The sign said it took the guy three months and a rather ridiculous amount of graham cracker, chocolate, and frosting to make. Very cool. And that pretty much wrapped things up for the day.


12/23/2013 A fun weekend

I'm still looking for Pokémon X/Y friend safaris with Eevee, Ditto, Sandshrew, and Shelgon. Please e-mail me if you have one.

Friday (Dec 20th): Surfing
My mom, brother, his fiance, and I rented a surfboard and a paddleboard for a few hours and took them out at Waikiki Beach. While I've done some surfing before, this is my first time going without an instructor. I didn't really need one after the first lesson, but having someone to choose a good location and push you into the waves is nice. This time, I had to try catching them myself. It's not easy. Picking the right location is tricky and you need to paddle pretty hard to make sure you're caught by the wave. Angle is important too. I did start to get the hang of it after a while, and managed to ride a few waves though, which was fun. Too bad I don't live somewhere I can practice regularly. As for the paddleboard (an extra large surfboard that you stand on and move using a paddle), it was a relaxing way to move around the water. At least once I learned the correct way to stand (it's not the same as on a regular surfboard). Though it works best on flat water. There are some people who use them to ride waves, but that would take a bit more practice.

Random Hawaii Comment: Farewell International Marketplace
You might remember me mentioning the International Marketplace in some of my previous Hawaii travelogues. It's an area on Waikiki that's a maze of trees, retail booths, cheap souvenir shops, and interesting little restaurants. Well, it's being shut down at the end of the year so they can rebuild it into a fancy upscale shopping mall. On the one hand, the Marketplace has clearly seen better days. On the other, it has a certain charm to it and there are some nice shops and restaurants in there. Besides, it provides a welcome variety compared to all the other fancy hotels and high end malls lining the street. I would have much rather seen the existing market revitalized with some repairs and improvements. But, when it comes to such a valuable piece of real estate, I guess it was inevitable. Still, I feel sorry for all the people losing their shops and restaurants. I'm glad I had the chance to explore the International Marketplace in the past and I'm going to miss it.

Saturday (Dec 21st): A Bit More Hiking
My family and I did a bit more hiking on Saturday. Nothing too intense (we were all still a bit sore from Koko Head), but pretty. First was what my dad calls the bamboo hike (I'm not sure what the real name is), since you spend much of the time walking through a large bamboo forest. It's a really nice little hike (especially if you're a fan of Asian comics and movies with their sprawling bamboo forests), though it tends to attract mosquitoes. Aside from bugs, we also came across a Jackson's Chameleon. These cool lizards aren't native to Hawaii, but were brought here a while back and took to the area. Though they're not all that common and this is the first time I've seen one in the wild. This one was a whole lot less high strung than your average lizard, and didn't seem to mind us watching as it slowly made its way around.
Due to all the mosquitoes, we left that area a bit early and headed over to one of Oahu's more famous hikes, Manoa Falls. It's a fairly short and simple walk though the forest, ending at the falls themselves. As you can tell from the picture, Manoa Falls is pretty tall, if not all that wide, though it's supposed to swell quite a lot when there's enough rain. It's not one of the most spectacular waterfalls I've seen, but both it and the surrounding forest are pretty and the hike is short and simple enough that just about anyone can do it, making it a good choice for tourists regardless of age and fitness. Though I'll note that parking there is difficult unless you want to pay.
After that, a brief look around the Honolulu Night Market (a collection of food and art stalls) and kaitenzushi (conveyor belt sushi) wrapped up a pleasant day.


12/20/2013 Sharks and mountains

The new voter bonus comic is up, so click the TWC button to vote! And now for the travelogue.

Wednesday (Dec 18th): Sharks by the North Shore
The past few days, while enjoyable, didn't really contain anything worth writing about. Today though, was a different story. Hannah, my brother's fiance, wanted to try swimming with sharks, so we signed up with North Shore Shark Adventures. Today was the day, so we got up early and headed out.
The fact that they didn't have us sign waivers before getting on the boat means that they must either be pretty confident in the safety of their passengers, or pretty ignorant about the legal system these days. On the way to the dive spot, I got some nice pictures of the island. But, before long, it was time. The area was obviously a pretty popular spot for sharks, and we could see lots of them swimming around beneath the water. Naturally, you don't just jump in with them, you go down in a cage. So long as you aren't overwhelmed with a desire to stick your arms and legs outside the bars, there really isn't any danger. And even then, Galapagos sharks and sandbar sharks aren't very likely to attack humans. They pretty much just ignored us and swam around the cage. My brother, Hannah, and I decided to go in together for a video of our swim. Here's a short clip (the three of us are in there, along with a couple of other people on the excursion). The guides were good, and each group got about 20 minutes in the water to watch the sharks. Probably not as much fun as swimming with dolphins (though I haven't done that, so I can't say), but watching the sharks swim around was pretty cool.
After the shark tour was finished, we headed off to do some other north shore stuff. The first stop was a small coffee and chocolate farm. They give little mini tours and we got to see the coffee and cocoa beans drying, try a fresh cocoa pod, and sample various stuff. Simple, but nice. They naturally had a store where you could buy their coffee and chocolate, along with various other souvenirs, but the highlight was the shave ice stand. As you can tell from the pic, they had all natural shave ice (using actual fruit juice and the lie rather than the usual chemical mixes). Kind of expensive, but easily the best shave ice I've ever had.
After that, we drove around for a bit and stopped at a fruit stand before eventually making it to Waimea Beach (you might remember that I visited the beautiful Waimea Valley last year (see the December 23rd entry). Well, the beach is right across the street and it's a really nice one. While it's not overly long, it's scenic and has some of the most perfect sand you can imagine (soft, deep, and without any uncomfortable shells or rocks). The waves weren't too far from shore, but they were a good height to splash around in. We even found a little reef a short ways out, along with a sea turtle. And then there's the rock. A nice big rock you can climb up and then jump into the ocean. It's fun and, so long as you get a decent jump, the water depth and soft sand make it pretty safe. Here's a video of one of my jumps. All in all, it's easily one of my favorite beaches, I'll have to go back sometime.
After that, we drove around a bit more and stopped at a fairly famous fish taco restaurant before heading back to Honolulu to take it easy for the rest of the day.

Thursday (Dec 19th): Koko Head
One of the more famous hikes on Oahu, after Diamond Head, is Koko Head. I'd never been on it and had been wanting to go and it fit today's schedule pretty nicely, despite all the clouds, so my family and I decided to give it a shot.
Koko Head is a hill/mountain on the east side of the island. It's actually a rather short hike, but it's straight up, making it fairly strenuous. You're actually walking up an old railroad track the entire way, which really begs the question, why did they build a rail line all the way up such a steep slope? Especially considering that the tracks just stop at the top without continuing on anywhere. The cloud cover was pretty welcome, keeping the temperature comfortable, though I could have done without the sudden rainstorm that hit when we were a bit past the half way point. Fortunately, it didn't last all that long, but it was pretty hard for a bit and there's really no shelter to be found on the trail. The views from the top, however, were worth it.
On the way back, we took a detour in a high end housing development on a hillside to look at the fancy houses (kind of a hobby for my parents). There's also a hiking trail at the back end of the development, so we followed it for a short ways. It also had great views, and looks like it could be a fun hike.
After a couple hours back in Honolulu, we then headed to the town of Kailua (another place I've visited and talked about before). The beach there was as scenic as ever (if a bit chilly due to the wind). We hung out there for a bit, but our main goal was to visit Kailua's weekly farmers' market. For the record, it's a pretty nice one. There's quite a lot of overlap (in terms of booths) with the Blaisdell Farmers' Market, with has always been a favorite of mine due the wide variety of food stands, which makes it a great place to grab a meal. Unfortunately, the Blaisdell market is taking a few weeks off due to construction, so it was nice to be able to get a similar experience in Kailua.

Well, that's all for now. See you Monday!


12/18/2013 Safari time

For all you Pokémon X/Y players out there, I'm looking to add a few specific pokémon to my friend safari. If you give them out, please e-mail me and we can trade friend codes. The pokémon I need are: Eevee, Ditto, Sandshrew, Shelgon, and Frogadier.

No travelogue entry today, since I haven't really don't anything especially worth writing about in the last couple of days. Today though, is a different story... But we'll talk about that on Friday. Right now, I need to get some sleep so I'll be ready.



12/16/2013 Back on Oahu

Well, I made it to Hawaii without any problems. As previously mentioned, PV updates should continue as normal. Though, due to the time chance, they'll be up a few hours later than usual.

Friday (Dec 13th): Returning to Oahu
It seems I've been coming to Hawaii quite a lot lately. This is the third year in a row that I've spent at least part of my winter break in Honolulu and I was here for six weeks the summer before last. Not that that's a bad thing, I quite like it here. Anyway, I'll once again be keeping a travelogue, though entries may be a bit sporadic to avoid repeating things I've already said in my previous Hawaii travelogues.
The trip from Florida wasn't anything special but the sky was pretty clear so I tried snapping a few pictures of the Hawaiian islands from the airplane. And here's one taken as the plane was landing on Oahu. Taking photos through an airplane window isn't easy, but it opens up the potential for some pretty cool shoots so I may have to keep practicing. This photo, on the other hand, was taken from my parents' condo.
And, for something completely different, a restaurant sign. Do they really need to advertise the fact that their salad comes with salad dressing? I mean, that's pretty much a given, right? At very least, I've never been to a restaurant that only serves salad without dressing.

Well, that's all for now. Expect some more interesting travelogue entries in the days ahead.


12/11/2013 Almost vacation

Well, tomorrow is my last day of work before winter break. Though I'll actually be leaving that evening since I've got an early flight on Friday (I miss living close to a large airport). But then it's off to Honolulu for the rest of the year. There will likely be some travelogue updates during the trip, though I'm not sure how many (I've already done a few Honolulu travelogues and don't want to just rehash things).

PV updates shouldn't be affected, though I'll be updating a few hours earlier due to the time difference. This Friday is slightly iffy though, since I'll be spending the night in a hotel.

Anyway, I'm certainly looking forward to the break and it'll be nice to spend some time both with my family and in Honolulu. Right now though, I've still got some things to get done before then.



12/9/2013 The games I want to like...

I finished the main video game I was playing a few days ago and the next one on my list is too long to finish before winter vacation, so I figured I'd try and run through a few short games that have been sitting on my shelf for ages. Unfortunately, it didn't take me long to remember why, despite their short length, I still haven't beaten them. The games in question are all music games. Specifically the Parappa the Rapper series and Space Channel 5 series. On the surface, they seem like the type of games I'd like. Catchy music, goofy stories, and rhythm based gameplay; all things I love.

So what's the problem? Well, let's start with the Parappa series. Now, before I go into detail, I should make it clear that I'm an expert level player when it comes to music games. DDR, Guitar Hero, Elite Beat Agent, Ouendan, Project Diva... I've played a lot of music games and, with a bit of practice, I've been able to clear just about every song on even the highest difficulty levels. But I just can't get the timing right in the Parappa games. I hit the button right when the marker passes over the symbol and half the time it decreases my rank. So I try hitting it early, late, etc., etc., and nothing works. Not only is the beat gauge way off, it also seems very inconsistent. Every time I think I'm starting to get the timing down, I seem to do even worse the next time. If I do clear a song, it's after a ridiculous number of repetitions and still feels like complete and total luck. In most games, if I beat a song once, I can usually do it again without much trouble. In Parappa, not so much. Even though the games only have a handful of songs, and the button combinations are relatively simple compared to some of the other games I've played, I just can't make it to the end. I spent hours on the original Parappa before getting so frustrated I gave up halfway through (something I almost never do) and I couldn't even clear the first song in Lammy despite about an hour of trying. How did these games get past testing? What the heck is the timing? For the record, it's not a syncing problem, other extremely timing sensitive music games work just fine on the same system and TV with the same display settings. Looking online, I'm far from the only one who just can't get the timing figured out, but no one seems to have a good explanation as to what the proper timing is, or why some people can just breeze through the games without any trouble.

And then there's Space Channel 5, which has a different problem. In Space Channel 5, instead of having a scrolling note bar or some such, a sequence is played and you have to memorize and then repeat it. The memorization is easy enough. The problem is that you not only need to replay the buttons from memory, you need to memorize and recreate the timing as well, without a single visual or audio cue to help you stay on beat. That's tough. Especially since making one mistake in a sequence causes the entire thing to fail. And it's not like the timing is consistent either, it changes each sequence. Just to make it harder, there doesn't seem to be a lot of room for error, you're either perfect or you fail. It's not as unfair as Parappa, and I get the feeling that, with enough repetition, I could probably memorize things well enough to make it through the game. But after failing to pass the rather lengthy opening level a half dozen times, I don't have a whole lot of desire to keep going. Especially since I don't seem to see all that much improvement with each subsequent attempt.

So that's that. The games go back on my shelf for a while until I decide to try them again in hopes they'll be less frustrating the next time around. As much as I want to like them, they just aren't making it easy.


12/6/2013 Grading

The new Blooper Reel comic is up so click the TWC button and vote to see it.

Well, just one week until the start of winter vacation. But, in the meantime, I've got lots of final projects to grade, and a few other assorted things to keep me busy over the coming days. Speaking of which, one of those things is that mystery bonus and it's almost done. I may even finish it over the weekend, depending on how long the grading takes. At latest, it should be ready to go before winter break. That said, I'm thinking I might hold off on its reveal until after New Year. That'll both give me time to get a bit more content ready, and get the distraction of the holidays and winter break out of the way, hopefully making for a better launch. But I haven't made a decision yet, so we'll see.

Have a good weekend!


12/4/2013 Encore

Let's get right to the travelogue.

Sunday (December 1st): SeaWorld
I went to SeaWorld just after Thanksgiving last year (see the November 25th entry) and ended up doing the same thing this year. It wasn't really intentional. I just had time for one last theme park trip before winter break. And, since I've only been to SeaWorld once and I've got unlimited admission until the end of the year, it seemed like a shame not to go again. Plus, I played the DLC case for Ace Attorney 5 about week before, which actually involves a killer whale, so I was in the mood to see some real ones anyway.
I don't want to rehash my previous travelogue entry, but I hit all the major shows and went on the rides. Like before, the roller coasters are particularly awesome (even though there's only two of them) and the shows are very well done. I have to wonder how much the animals understand about what's going on. For them is it just follow commands to get food, or do they have some level of comprehension of the greater scheme of things?
Random musings aside, I did get to one show I didn't see last time around, a Christmas show about the nativity from the perspective of the animals. It wasn't the most accurate retelling, but it was mostly an excuse to work in lots of Christmas carols and they did have some pretty good singers. The animals were mostly puppets, but they did bring out a bunch of real ones towards the end. That said, I'm pretty sure ancient Israel didn't have llamas.
Of course, it wouldn't be a visit to SeaWorld without lots of animal viewing as well. I could watch the Sea Lions for ages (especially when they're competing for food). Another favorite is the park's new Antarctic area. There's a fairly nice restaurant there, but the main draw is the penguins. It starts out with a short ride through a fake ice cave before you're dropped off in the penguin habitat. It's pretty large and they have quite a lot of penguins from several different species. There's an underwater viewing area too, if you want to watch them swimming around. Though, if you plan to watch the penguins for a while, you might want to bring a jacket, as they keep the whole area at 32 degrees (freezing). All in all, it's a nice addition to the park.
To wrap things, I caught the tree lighting, the Christmas version of the Shamu show, ice skating, and finally the fireworks. I gotta say, SeaWorld may be one of the smaller theme parks but it's fun and, if you like the shows, you can easily fill up a day.


12/2/2013 Stupid traffic

I went to SeaWorld yesterday (expect a travelogue entry later this week) but got stuck in a big traffic jam on the way back. And, seeing as it was late at night on a highway, that meant there was probably an accident somewhere. Probably. See, it was one of those things where you spend ages inching forward only for everything to suddenly clear up with no real sign as to what slowed things down in the first place. That always annoys me. If the accident was already cleared up, why didn't traffic start moving sooner? Was their even an accident? Did a few people just decide to block off the road and drive really slow? Actually, the way drivers are here, that wouldn't surprise me. It seems at least half of them are determined to always go 15 - 20 miles over the speed limit and will drive on the shoulder of the road and cut through dangerously narrow gaps in traffic to avoid slowing down if at all possible. Then you have another quarter that like to drive 5 - 10 miles below the speed limit. Which would be ok if they stayed in the right lane where they're supposed to (there's even periodic signs reminding slower traffic to keep right), but some of them would rather go block the left lane, holding up all the other drivers. So you get slow drivers in the right lane where they're supposed to be and, if your luck is bad, slow drivers blocking the other lanes and slowing down everyone.

But anyway, thanks to that traffic jam I got back a lot later than I planned so I need to head off. Later!


11/29/2013 It's coming...

As always, there's a new Blooper Reel Comic so just click the TWC button to see it!

I've been working a bit on that mystery bonus and it's going more quickly than I thought it would. Assuming nothing happens to slow things down, it should be ready to go in a week or two at most.

Well, that's about all I have to say for now. I hope everyone (or everyone in the US anyway) had a great Thanksgiving. But now, happy Chanukah and good luck Black Friday shopping!


11/27/2013 Thanksgiving break

Guardian of the Stone (one of my fantasy novels) will be free on Kindle today through Sunday!

Well, I had to fix one more weird bug and that two hours turned into several, but my new laptop is finally fully up and running. Now we'll see how long it takes me to get used to the new touchpad and keyboard.

Anyway, I'm on Thanksgiving break for the rest of the week. Actually though, I had my Thanksgiving party a few days ago with some friends and I'm on my own for the next few days. My family is too far away to visit over such a short vacation, and I'll be seeing them during winter break anyway. And my friends will be out of town. So what am I going to do? There's a movie or two I want to see, and I'm planning a theme park trip one day. Other than that, some video games, working on Aurora's Nightmare, and cooking Chanukah food are all on the to-do list. First up though, a good night's sleep. I've been staying up too late for the past few days working on this laptop.


11/25/2013 The big upgrade

I mentioned before that I was getting a new latop. Well, it showed up last Friday so I've been working to get it set up. It's nice, a custom Asus with a 4th gen Intel i7, 16GB RAM, 2GB VRAM, 1TB hard drive, and a Blu-ray writer. I have to admit, this is probably the least "must have" of all my computer upgrades over the years. My old laptop is 3 1/2 years old, so it's getting on a bit. It can't run some newer games and other software as fast as I'd like (though it it runs everything I throw at it, mostly at pretty decent settings). The main issues though are that I was running out of disc space and the system was starting to have some trouble with overheating during heavy use despite a good cleaning. The keyboard and mouse are starting to wear down a bit too. If I got a new power cord, hard drive, and maybe a battery I could probably make it work for another six months or a year, but this was a pretty decent time to buy for me, financially, so I ended up going for it.

So anyway, I've spent a signficant part of the weekend setting up my new system. First off was the wow factor. Though it's not quite as big a jump, hardware wise, as my previous systems, it's a good bit stronger, thinner, and runs extremely cool and quiet. The keyboard and touch pad are just different enough to throw me off a little, but I'm I'll get used to it soon enough.
But anyway, after playing with the system for a few minutes, I got started with the settings, installations, file transfers, and so on. Some parts went very smoothly. For example, it was a simple matter to copy most of my files and a good bit of software onto an external hard drive and then put it on the new laptop. I also moved Carbonite (my online backup program) over to fill in anything I missed in my hard drive transfer. Unfortunately, I hit a snag there. For some reason, my media folders on the old computer are named Music, Photos, etc. while on the new on they're My Music, My Photos, etc. That was enough to throw off Carbonite's auto restore to the point where I decided to cancel that entirely and just double check to make sure I got all the files myself. That didn't add too much extra work, but it does mean Carbonite thinks it has to back up all those file again. At least it'll do that automatically, even if it will take a while.
A couple other frustrations? Adobe decided to close down the activation servers for my version of the Creative Suite (it's not even all that old). On the bright side, they were nice enough to provide a convenient work around. On the down side, it required some big file downloads and their instruction for the process weren't written very clearly, so I had to spend an extra hour or two figuring out how to get it all working right.
And then there was Norton... Normally, I like Norton Internet Security. I've been using it for ages. But this time I ran into a problem. See, I use their Identity Safe to store all my user names, passwords, and other form data. It started out storing all your data locally, on your computer. Then a while back they added the option to also store it online. I never used the online version. First, it seems a bit less secure (though they guarentee it's safe). Second, there are times when I need it when I don't have a net connection (in order to log-in to the internet at work, for example). Not to mention that their server can go down once in a while... Thing is, if you install the latest version of Norton, it apparently forces you to go online only (I can't see any good reason for that), something I didn't realize until after the fact. I did find a work around eventually, if you start with an older version of Norton and then upgrade it to the new version, you can keep the offline mode (which is apparently what happened on my old computer). So I had to uninstall Norton, download an old version, and update it a whole lot of times, but it worked out in the end.
After that, things went pretty smoothly for a while, with the occasional minor snag when I realized that there's a couple program discs and activation codes I'd kind of like to have that are back in Colorado. Nothing I can't survive without (I make sure to keep all my absolutely critical software handy), but still annoying. Another thing that bugs me is game save data. Some games keep their save data in their program folder and some save it in My Documents folder. Both of those make it easy to find and transfer. But there are quite a lot of games that stick their save data in all sorts of weird places (often in hidden ProgramData and AppData folders), making it a huge pain in the neck to find. I think I got all the stuff I cared about in the end, but it was a pain to do so and less tech savvy users would never be able to find it.
Then it got to the point where I was about an hour or two away from being totally done... And then I ran into a couple of problems. First off, a file I needed for DRM for several programs refused to download. Worse, I discovered that all my browsers were having problems with Javascript (some scripts worked, some didn't), rendering some websites I frequently visit unworkable. Trying to fix that drove me crazy. None of the more obvious fixes worked, and a bunch of Google searching didn't turn up any workable solutions either. In the end, I finally got it fixed (or at least mostly so) about an hour ago. But that was after several hours of frustration. That DRM file suddenly decided to download properly as well. But I still have that last couple hours of stuff left.

Sigh... As much as computers are a part of so many aspects of my daily life, they can also be some of the most frustrating thing I deal with. And, in many cases, it's because of problems that could easily be fixed if developers put a bit more thought into usability. Sigh... Oh well, at least I shouldn't have to deal with this again for a few more years.


11/22/2013 All the fairy tales

There's a new Blooper Reel comic, just click the TWC button and vote!

At this point, I can safely say that Once Upon a Time in Wonderland is my favorite new show of this TV season. Actually, it's rapidly becoming one of my favorite currently airing shows period. The mixture of Alice in Wonderland and Alladin is an odd one, but it's done surprisingly well. Or maybe not so surprisingly, considering it's a spin-off of the fairy tale mixing Once Upon a Time. Once Upon a Time is also quite good, with an interesting Peter Pan story arc nearing its climax. It's rather fun to see classic fairy tales re-invented in different ways. I like the originals (I have some nice collections of Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson, and others), and always have fun with the Disney versions, but I've got to say that I really enjoy the more in-depth, mature, and somewhat dark takes on them as well. Jim Hines, for example, has a cool little fantasy novel series I read a couple years back which can best be described as Charlie's Angels (with Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty) in a fairy tale world. Stuff like that makes me want to try my hand at a fairy tale adaptation. But probably not any time soon. I've got Aurora's Nightmare to finish and plans for a number of other books and games I want to work on afterwards. Still, it's something to keep in mind...


11/20/2013 Meh

I did have something I was planning to talk about today, but I'm really not in the greatest mood right now (nothing serious, just a few little things going wrong that sort of added up). As a result, I just don't feel like writing anything, sorry. I'll have more to say on Friday.


11/18/2013 Photos

There was an art fair in Gainesville yesterday (the same one I went to last year, see my October 14th travelogue entry) so I swung by for a bit before doing my grocery shopping. Once again, I found some of the most impressive work to be the photography. I wonder if most of the guys selling their photos on canvas have their own canvas printer or if they use a service, like I've done a few times over the past year. Owning a printer would be cheaper in the long run, though more work. And, while I don't know how much that kind of printer costs, I'd assume both the printer itself and the ink are pretty costly. Either way, now that I have a better idea of the costs and quality (at least for using a printing company), I think it would be fun to get a booth at one of those festivals and try to sell some of my own photos. I have a number of photos that I think are on the same level as most of the ones I saw today. Only problem is, to have a decent booth, I'd probably need to invest a couple thousand dollars for the necessary inventory. And, while the photographers do charge quite a bit for their pictures, I have no idea how many sales they tend to make at the average art festival. Well, maybe someday...


11/15/2013 Duets

There's a new Timmy Tonka strip up for everyone who votes! This is the last of the ones I owe, so we'll be switching back to regular Blooper Reel strips for a while. You can get more Timmy Tonka strips by hitting various donation goals, and I may toss one out every once in a while just for something different. But I still do owe you guys that mystery bonus, and I'm going to get started on it very soon. I'm hoping to have it done before the end of the year, though I'm unsure of exactly how long it will take to complete. At earliest, probably the start of December. At latest...maybe sometime in January.

I was listening to music on the way to work the other day, and I got in the mood to focus on duets. There's just something about a good duet, the way the singers work together, that really makes the song pop. So, without further ado, here are a few of my favorite duets in no particular order.
I Cannont Believe My Eyes from Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog; sung by Neil Patrick Harris and Felicia Day.
Lion and Triangular (fight on Stage) from Macross Frontier; sung by May'n and Megumi Nakajima.
Magnet and Akatsuki Arrival; sung by Hatsune Miku and Megurine Luka.
Cendrillon; sung by Hatsune Miku and Kaito.
Sunspot Cycle; sung by Kagamine Rin and Len.
Moment, from Gundam SEED; sung by Vivian or Kazuma

There may be a few others I'm forgetting at the moment (I've got a pretty large music collection), and if I wanted to include songs with three or more singers as well (which wouldn't really be duets), I could add a bunch of others. But anyway, I hope I introduced you to some new music.

Have a good weekend!


11/13/2013 One more...

Well, I'm back in Florida but it's only one more month until winter break. I'll be visiting my family in Hawaii again like last year, and I'm very much looking forward to it.

Anyway, it's been a busy day running around, unpacking, catching up on things, etc. and I'm kind of worn out so I'm cut things short. See you Friday!


11/11/2013 The 1's

As I'm writing this news post, it's 11:11 PM. Of course, I'm writing it on 11/10 rather than 11/11, but it's for 11/11. And yeah, that's really the most interesting thing I have to write about at the moment. I'll be flying back to Florida this afternoon after visiting my grandma. The trip has gone well enough, though it hasn't been anything too exciting. I've made some serious progress in Pokémon, but I think I'll wait until I've gotten into the post-game content before I write up my final thoughts.

So yeah, not much to talk about. Hopefully that'll change by Wednesday.


11/8/2013 Over the river and through the woods...

There's a new Timmy Tonka for everyone who votes!

Actually, it's more like down the highway and through the air. But, if you didn't figure it out for that bit of the rhyme, I'm going to visit my grandmother this weekend. I don't think I'll be doing anything worth a travelogue entry, so don't expect much in that regard. Monday's update will probably be unaffected. Note the probably though. There's a chance it could get delayed or skipped depending what happens and how good the internet is.

In other news, I ended up ordering that new laptop. It'll be nice to have some additional speed and power but, to be honest, if I wasn't faced with a serious lack of hard disk space (despite my efforts to remove unnecessary stuff) and a fraying power cord (those cords are surprisingly expensive to replace) I probably wouldn't have bothered for at least another half year. You hear a lot about the death of the PC these days, specifically how tablets and smartphones are taking over so people just don't care about regular computers and laptops anymore. But some of the smarter tech writers point out that it's not so much that people aren't using regular computers, it's that your average computer these days lasts quite a long time. When I first got into computers as a kid, tech was changing so fast that you'd be lucky if a computer lasted a year or two before becoming horribly outdated. Now, unless you're a serious gamer or media creator, a decent computer can easily last you somewhere in the 5 - 10 year range before it gets outdated to the point of needing to be replaced. Heck, even people like me can easily go several years between new computers. Hardware keeps getting better, but most current software runs perfectly fine on older systems so there's often just no compelling reason to upgrade. Computers are no longer something your average person upgrades every couple of a years (cell phones own that now), but something that'll last them for a really long time, much like a TV or toaster. It'll take companies some time to get used to that. But, in the meantime, "the death of PCs" makes for a nice headline, so we'll continue to see it for a while even if it's not really the case.
Anyway, I got an Asus from a reseller site that has a pretty good rating (though it's not a place I'd ever heard of before). So we'll see how that goes when it arrives. It's too bad I couldn't stick with Dell, but Asus gets better ratings these days and I got the exact hardware I wanted (with Windows 7) for a pretty good price so yeah. Nothing to do now but wait and hope. And then copy files and install programs... You know, maybe holding other for another few months wouldn't have been so bad...


11/6/2013 Computer shopping

It's gotten to the point where I'm starting to think of getting a new laptop. I typically upgrade around every three years and I've had this one for about three and a half. It still works ok and can still run everything I throw at it (though not always with max settings), but it's getting a bit slow with some programs and starting to wear out a little. Not to mention that I could use a bigger hard drive. So I've started to do a bit of browsing online. I've been getting Dells for quite a long time, so that was my first stop. But apparently they changed owners recently and one of the resulting changes is that they've pretty much stopped selling custom built systems. And, since none of their base models have the hardware combination I want, it looks like I'm going to have to move on. Asus seems to get the best overall reviews these days, and they can be heavily customized, though they don't sell systems directly, you have to go through one of various small third party companies to get a custom system. So I've got to worry about which of those are trustworthy. And, of course, there's decisions about what exact configuration to get. I pretty much know what I want but, much like when I got this laptop, I find it kind of tough to resist getting a solid state drive instead of a regular hard drive. They're faster, use less power, and less prone to breaking. On the other hand, they're also really expensive (getting one in the size I want would add a good $500 - 600 to the cost of the system) and it's not like I've ever had problems with traditional hard drives. I can afford it, but there's a lot of other things I could do with that money. Anyway, I'll likely be ordering a new computer either within the next week or two, or early next year after I get back from winter vacation. It'll be nice to have (assuming everything works ok), but I never really look forward to copying over my files, reinstalling all my programs, redoing all the settings, and so on. Just because I'm a tech guy doesn't mean I actually find all that stuff fun. It's really just a big time sink.

Well, whatever. See you Friday.


11/4/2013 Movies

Wow, there's a lot of movies I want to see coming out between now and the end of the year. The first of the bunch was Ender's Game, which I went to see over the weekend. In general, I'd say I dislike (or even hate) far more film adaptations of books I've read than not, but Ender's Game turned out quite well. Good casting, good effects, and a pretty solid adaptation all around. They shortened the time in which everything plays out, and cut out a lot of the stuff with Ender's family, but that didn't really hurt the overall story too much. The ending got shortened quite a bit, however, which I'm not quite as pleased with. On the one hand, the movie ending has much better pacing than the book, but it drops the explanation behind the aliens' actions which, in my opinion, detracts from things just a bit.

What other movies am I looking forward to? Well, Catching Fire and the second Hobbit movie are must sees, as is The Wind Rises (the new Ghibli film), assuming it plays in a theater nearby. And while the first one wasn't one of the best Marvel movies, I'll still be getting to the new Thor movie at some point. Frozen and 47 Ronin look like they might be fun as well (though the latter's complete and utter disregard for the historical story it shares its name with bugs me a bit). And, to wrap it up, I just might be able to catch the third Madoka movie in an actual theater. So yeah, quite a lot of movies in a span of around two months.

Well, I'm off for now. Later!


11/1/2013 Holiday spirit

The next Timmy Tonka is up for everyone who votes (use the TWC button).

Other than that movie night last weekend, I wasn't planning on doing anything for Halloween this year since I don't have a tradition of celebrating it and none of my in this area had anything planned. But I wasn't in the mood to cook last night, and hadn't eaten out for a while, so I decided to go get a hamburger. But I forgot that the town I live in was doing a downtown trick or treat event. As a result, I couldn't find a place to park so I had to turn around and go back to my apartment. But I didn't really want to give up on that hamburger, and it's only a ten minute walk from my place anyway, so I decided to go by foot. And I figured that, as long as I was going, I might as well fit in. I didn't have an actual costume handy, so I threw on my karate gi instead and headed over. Even though this is a small town, the trick or treat event was clearly a big deal. The whole street was blocked off to traffic and there were probably a few thousand people around all together (lots of kids of course, but a good number of teens, college age, and adults as well). The local business were getting in on things, with decorations, candy handouts, and the like. There was even a costume contest. All I really did was walk around a bit (I didn't really feel like going candy collecting), but I've never really done anything special on Halloween before (the closest I ever came was when I happened to play through the Halloween Town section of Kingdom Hearts on Halloween), so it was kinda fun. And watching a bunch of people in costume is always interesting.

Well, I should get going. Have a good weekend!


10/30/2013 An ordinary week

Other than that potluck this past Sunday, this is shaping up to be a pretty typical week. I'm teaching classes, working on Aurora's Nightmare, and still enjoying Ace Attorney 5. And that's about it for now. I can't think of much to talk about at the moment, and I'm kind of distracted by other things I'm working on right now, so I think I'll just leave it at that for today.

See you Friday!


10/28/2013 Weekend activities

Well, I had a fun, if kind of busy weekend. Saturday night was a sorta Halloweenish movie night at a friend's and then yesterday the local Japanese association had a potluck, which I went to along with some friends. Being a potluck, I had to bring something, so I spent the morning making those Chinese fried balls filled with red bean paste and covered with sesame seeds. I really should learn what they're actually called at some point... Anyway, it was my first time making them, but they turned out perfectly. I'll have to make them again sometime (there weren't any leftovers). Then, after the potluck, a few of use went to a karaoke place for a bit. Which was also fun, though their song selection is kinda weird and their system is pretty buggy. Still, it's the closest thing to real Japanese karaoke around here.

Anyway, while I had a good time it didn't leave me much time to work on PV strips, so I need to get back to that.



10/25/2013 Back in the courtroom

There's a new Timmy Tonka strip up so click the TWC button and confirm your vote to see it!

Ace Attorney 5 was released yesterday! Digital download only, unfortunately, but I'm really happy to have it in any form. I'm a huge fan of the Ace Attorney (aka. Phoenix Wright) series. The interesting yet quirky characters, the mix of complex mysteries, serious themes, and often hilarious dialogue... Not to mention the great music and animations. I started playing yesterday after work and was quickly reminded why I love the series so much, and how much I missed it. The last game to be released here was the spin-off Miles Edgeworth Investigations back in early 2010 (Japan got a second Edgeworth game a year later, which sadly never made it to the US). That's a pretty long wait in an of itself, but it's been about five and a half years since the last main series title, which is way too long to go without searching crime scenes and breaking down lying witnesses during trial. But at last Ace Attorney 5 is here. And next year I've got Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney to look forward to. Now all the other fans out there (and any other 3DS owners looking for a great adventure game) just need to buy Ace Attorney 5. If it sells well enough, it might convince Capcom to finally localize Miles Edgeworth 2, or maybe realize that the series still deserves full retail releases here. Well, whatever happens, Ace Attorney 5 is a great game in a great series and I really hope I don't have to wait another five and a half years for Ace Attorney 6.


10/23/2013 Back to Epcot

Travelogue time!

Sunday (October 20th): Epcot Food and Wine Festival
If you're a regular reader of my travelogues, you might remember that I went to Epcot's Food and Wine Festival for the first time last year. Well, ever since I knew that I'd be returning to Florida this fall, I've been looking forward to going again. As a note, seeing as I've covered both the festival and Epcot itself in the past, I won't be going into too much detail this time around.
Most of the festival is centered around the World Showcase, which opens a couple hours later than the rest of the park. So I had time to go on a couple of rides (the lines stayed surprisingly reasonable all day) and swing by the festival center to pick up my passport (a nifty little book you can use to keep track of what foods you've tried at the festival) and check out this year's collection of chocolate dioramas. This one was my favorite, perhaps because it reminds me of home. Not to mention the detail they put into those rocks. Anyway, the main highlight of the festival is the food and drink booths spread out across the World Showcase. They're all themed around either specific countries or types of food. Most of this year's 30 booths were around last year (though they have updated menus), but there were one or two that didn't make it back and a couple of brand new ones (Scotland and coffee) as well. The selection of food and drinks is diverse, really high quality (near gourmet level, in a lot of cases), and, with most things costing in the $3 - $5 range, perfect for a day of snacking. I didn't go to all 30 booths, there's only so much I can eat and a few just didn't interest me anyway, but I did hit quite a lot of them (I'm normally fairly cost conscious, but visits to Epcot are my time to splurge on food). I won't list everything I tried but, just to mention a few highlights... Terra had a a vegetarian chili (with cashew cheese and fake beef) which was surprisingly good, especially considering that I'm usually not all that fond of fake meat or even chili. While they're not especially unusual, I really have to mention Argentina's awesome beef empanadas. And Australia, which was right nearby, had a lamb chop with mint pesto. Not only was the pesto amazing, but it was probably the best lamb I've ever had (not tough or gamey at all). Scotland's vegetarian haggis was pretty interesting, as was New Zealand's venison sausage (you know, I don't remember seeing any deer when I was there). Can't forget Japan's youki tofu either. Naturally, there were also desserts like hazelnut cheesecake and apple strudel. There were lots of different drinks too but, as you probably know if you're a regular reader, alcohol isn't really my thing. I did try one drink though (a soju fruit slush), just because it sounded interesting. It wasn't bad, though I like the frozen teas they've got in China (as a normal part of the park, not a festival thing) better.
Anyway, I did more than eat, of course. I went on most of the rides, spent some time in the aquarium, and visited all the countries in the World Showcase. I also decided to try catching some of the shows I hadn't seen before. On that note, this little Food and Wine Festival band was amusing. but my favorites were the British Rock Revolution show, which had a pretty good cover band doing British rock hits from the 60's through today, and Canada's Off Kilter Celtic band. You know, while I don't hear it all that much, I rather like Celtic music (especially the more "rocky" variety), they even did a pretty cool remix of Danny Boy. There was a big band performing as well, but none of the groups this year really interested me so I didn't pay too much attention there (I tend to like the line up in spring's Flower and Garden Festival better). And, of course, you can't forget the big fireworks show at the end of the day. Speaking of which, I think I'm really starting to get the hang of taking good fireworks shots with my (relatively) new camera.
Overall, I loved the Food and Wine Festival last year and it was just as awesome this time. If you're in Orlando at the right time of year (it usually runs from late September through early November), and aren't on some sort of extreme diet, you really should check it out and expand your culinary horizons.


10/21/2013 Food!

I went to Epcot yesterday for the Food and Wine Festival. Expect a write-up later this week, but not today since I got back late and need to get some sleep.



10/18/2013 Change of pace

There are still a few more Timmy Tonka strips coming up but I didn't get the next one finished in time, so this week's voter bonus comic is a new Blooper Reel strip instead. Timmy Tonka will continue next week.

And... That's about all I have to say right now. I got caught up doing some work on Aurora's Nightmare and, before I realized it, it was getting late and I didn't have much time left to write today's news post. So, have a good weekend and I'll see you Monday.


10/16/2013 Fall TV season

So, the fall TV season has been going for a few weeks now. What am I watching? Mostly the same things as last year. To be specific, I'm still watching Castle, How I Met Your Mother, Person of Interest, Elementary, The Simpsons, Hawaii 5-0, Big Bang Theory, Revolution, and Mythbusters (though it's on a weird schedule). There's also Psych (which has weird seasons and is on break right now) and Once Upon a Time (which I was previously watching on Netflix but I'm caught up now). There's also Doctor Who, though I'm still waiting for the latest season to show up on Netflix, and Game of Thrones, why I just get on DVD since I don't want to pay for an HBO subscription.
A couple of shows (Futurama and Fringe) have ended for good, so they're off my list. But I've added a couple of new ones to replace them. Marvel Agents of Shield is sort of a follow-up to The Avengers, though focusing on the non-super powered Shield agents, rather than Iron Man, Captain America, and the rest of the super heroes. It actually reminds me a lot of both Fringe and Torchwood and is off to a decent start. And then there's Once Upon a Time in Wonderland. It's a spin-off of Once Upon a Time, but so far it looks like new viewers can jump right in without missing much aside from a couple of cameos since it focuses on different characters in a different world. Storywise, it takes place a while after the classic Alice in Wonderland, with an older Alice returning to Wonderland in an attempt to rescue her fiance from the Red Queen. Like Once Upon a Time, it's putting a darker and more mature take on the fairy tale and, in an interesting twist, is mixing in some characters from Aladdin. It started a bit late this season so it might be too early to form a definite opinion, but the first episode was pretty awesome.
Other than that of course, there's anime (both on DVD and Cartoon Network's Toonami block), but that's a subject for another day.


10/14/2013 Catching 'em all again

As a reminder, PV is switching back to three comics per week (Monday, Wednesday, and Friday) starting today.

Pokémon X and Y, the sixth generation of the main series, are finally here! And, seeing as this is a Pokémon comic, it seems only right that I take some time to talk about them. I wasn't able to pick up my copy of X until yesterday, but I did take a large part of the day off to play (it's the first time in ages that I've done a game marathon like that). For those of you familiar with the story progression, I just got the Poké Flute. So, what are my thoughts so far? Well, each generation of the Pokémon series usually makes a few minor improvements to the basic formula while, at the same time, dropping some from previous installments (a bit of a two steps forward and one step back type of thing). X and Y, on the other hand, seem to be the largest leap forward since gen II. The main game mechanics are still the same, though there are a couple new battle types and alternate ways to raise affection and EVs, but there are improvements everywhere. There's the new Fairy type as well, which balances out the chart a bit better (though will take some getting used to).
The most obvious change is the graphics, which have finally gone full 3D. The camera has been zoomed way in as well, providing a much closer look than ever before. The world looks great and it's not just the addition of a third dimension, they put a lot of little details into the scenery, from the rippling grass, to the way the main character (whose appearance you can customize) bends down when talking to younger kids, sits in chairs, and stretches when you stand around for too long. Battles are similarly improved, featuring (in my opinion) better attack animations than even Battle Revolution on the Wii (though a few attacks could still use some work). The one problem with the graphics is that they don't take as much advantage of the 3DS's 3D effects as they could. In fact, most of the time it literally forces you to play in 2D (regardless of where you have the slider), only switching to 3D for battles, cut-scenes, and certain other areas. While it's not a huge issue, they could have done such a better job there...
The sound has been upgraded as well, thanks to the 3DS's improved sound hardware. The music is great. Pokémon voices (a pet peeve of mine) could still use an overhaul though. On the plus side, they no longer sound like they were pulled right off the original Gameboy, but they're mostly still a bunch of chirps and screeches. Except for pikachu, who seems to have had its voice clips pulled straight out of the anime. Why couldn't they have done that for the others as well?
Anyway, the basic gameplay has a ton of small improvements as well. The new EXP Share and the ability to gain EXP even when capturing a pokémon make leveling up your team easier than ever, the roller skates let you move around quickly and easily starting early in the game, and the pokémon types in early areas are set up so it's extremely easy to put together a diverse and useful team. And that's just a few of many, the game is full of little improvements and nifty (if not especially game changing) additions. The pokémon selection is nice too. It almost feels like a sort of "greatest hits" collection of old pokémon have been mixed with the new, I keep running across old favorites of mine. Not to mention that, in addition to a new starter, you get one of the original three as well. Plus, right now, they're giving away a nice torchic as a mystery gift.
The story... Well, the new friend/rival characters (you have a group this time), seem like a pleasant and diverse bunch. It does go a bit slowly though. I still haven't reached the second gym (despite over seven hours of play time and a team in the mid 20's) and have yet to run into a single evil Team whatever goon (though I did have a couple run-ins with a seemingly nice guy who looks like he might end up being the villain). So far, this seems more like a relaxing pokémon adventure, with the characters trying to learn more about the new Mega Evolutions rather than anything more world shaking.
So, while it starts out a bit slowly, I'm enjoying my latest Pokémon adventure. I can't give the game a full rating until I've seen the entire story and end-game content but, from what I've seen so far, X and Y look pretty certain to please fans. It's still Pokémon though, so people who never liked the series probably won't change their minds. But, if you're a former player who hasn't kept up with all the past generations, all the advances and improvements in X and Y make it a great time to return.


10/11/2013 Slowing down

The new Timmy Tonka strip is up. Just vote (using the TWC button on the left) to see it.

In other news, starting Monday, Pebble Version will be returning to the normal Monday, Wednesday, Friday update schedule. That's right, I've finished all the weeks of Monday - Friday updates I owed you guys from the burst of donations earlier in the year. I even threw in an extra week to make up for the days I skipped due to holidays. While I'm sure a lot of you will be dissapointed to see updates slowing down a bit, I'm kind of glad. With everything that was going on over the summer and then the first part of this semester, I was never able to get any sort of comic buffer going and had to put in a number of late nights to get all these strips done in time. Going back to three strips a week will be a nice break. But don't worry, you've still got some bonus content coming your way. First off, there's a few more weeks of Timmy Tonka strips left to go. Then there's that mystery bonus which, now that I don't have to make five new comics a week, I might have time to work on. I can't really give an estimated date yet though. I have some more planning to do first and it's going to take a while to make, but it should be finished before the end of the year at the latest, hopefully a bit sooner.

Well, I'm off for now. Have a great weekend!


10/9/2013 One of those days

It's one of those days when I just can't think of anything in particular to write about. Um... rain on the PS3 is a pretty nice little downloadable game, very atmospheric (Sony's Japan Studio just keeps impressing me lately). I also started watching Tsubasa Resevoir Chronicles, which is quite good so far. Seeing as it's based on a Clamp series, I had fairly high expectations for the story and artwork (so far, so good on both fronts), but what I hadn't realized before I started watching was that Yuki Kajiura did the music. As it happened, I was listening to my Xenosaga soundtracks not too long ago (she did the music for the second and third games in the trilogy), which reminded me how great of a composer she is, especially when it comes to choral arrangements. Not to mention that she was a part of See-Saw (along with Chiaki Ishikawa, one of my favorite Japanese singers), which I love. Anyway, now I really want the soundtrack for Tsubasa as well.

Well, I'm rambling and I've got other things I should probably be doing so I'll see you Friday.


10/7/2013 Now on Amazon!

Car Washer: Summer of the Ninja, the indie game I released last year, is now available on Amazon!

Well, there wasn't really a need to write travelogue entries for my outings the last couple of weekends, but I did want to put up a few pictures. Here's me and some friends at Typhoon Lagoon at Disney (it was taken with a phone, so the quality isn't all that great). And here's a couple from when Robert, Yuki, and I went to Universal Islands of Adventure. Speaking of Islands of Adventure, we must have been there on a really good day or something. None of the lines, even in the Harry Potter area, were more than 20 minutes long, and most were a lot shorter. Pretty awesome compared to last time, when I had to wait a couple of hours just for the Harry Potter ride. Anyway, as for actual travelogue entries, there should be a couple coming up in the not too distant future. Some friends and I are talking about going to the big Halloween event at either Universal Studios or Busch Gardens, though we haven't worked out the details yet, and there's no way I'm missing Epcot's Food and Wine Festival.

But for now, I need to get going.  See you Wednesday!


10/4/2013 Finding time

The next Timmy Tonka strip is up for everyone who votes!

As I hoped, my schedule has pretty much gotten back to normal this week. But, since I still don't have my comic buffer rebuilt, I've having to make a lot of these PV strips right before I update the site, which results in some slightly late nights and doesn't leave me with time to write much of anything in these news posts. But I'll have another go at that buffer over the weekend, so hopefully that'll change soon.

Anyway, I'll see you Monday!


10/2/2013 A new month

Well, it's a new month. Other than some more theme park trips (I want to hit up Epcot's Food and Wine Festival and possibly one of the big Halloween events), I don't really have anything major planned this month. Which is rather nice after how busy September was. And hey, we've got Beyond Two Souls and, more importantly (at least for most of my readers), Pokémon X and Y coming out in the near future. I might have a couple cool announcements related to some of my own projects coming up as well...

At the moment though, I still haven't quite rebuilt my PV strip buffer so I should get going. Later!


9/30/2013 Sleep...

I had a fun time with some friends at Universal Islands of Adventure yesterday, but I had a late night leading up to it and I've got work this morning so I really need to get some sleep before then. I might write about the outing (though I don't know if it warrants a full travelogue entry) and post some photos later this week. Right now though, I'm way too tired...


9/27/2013 Back to normal?

The new Timmy Tonka strip is up for everyone who votes!

Well, most of all the extra stuff I had to deal with at work is taken care of. Though I'm a bit behind on grading as a result, so there's still that to deal with. But anyway, work is calming down, all that random stuff I needed to do outside of work is finished, and the holidays just ended. It's looking like my schedule might finally be getting back to normal. If I can get a bit ahead on PV strips over the weekend, everything should be good.

For now though, I should probably get going. Got some errands I need to run today and I'm hoping to spend a bunch of time working on Aurora's Nightmare as well, something I haven't had much time for over the past week or two.


9/25/2013 Work and play

My weekend was rather busy, if fun, and this week has been going the same way so far. Monday after work I went to the Japanese language tables I usually attend and things ended up running pretty late (it was fun though). Yesterday, on the other hand, I had to stay really late at work to help with a special event. That was considerably less fun, though it did help promote my program a bit. Today is going to be pretty busy as well, if only because I have to catch up on a bunch of things I didn't have time to do the last couple of days as a result. I'm rather looking forwad to tomorrow which, being the last day of sukkot, should be pretty relaxing. Speaking of which, there won't be a new comic tomorrow as a result. That should be the last update I'll need to skip for quite a while though, barring something unexpected.

See you Friday!


9/23/2013 Getting around

It's been a fun weekend. I got in some Pokémon battles Friday evening and went to a sukkot celebration on Saturday. Then on Sunday I got some friends together and went to Typhoon Lagoon in Orlando. It was great to finally get a good group together for one of my water park trips, though getting stuck in one of the biggest traffic jams I've ever seen along the way was rather annoying.

Other than that though, I'm running pretty late right now since I had to finish today's strip at the last minute. It actually doesn't have anything to do with my weekend activities. I had time to work on Pebble Version. But, every time I sat down to do so, something more pressing came up, the result being that I made very little progress on this week's comics.

Anyway, I should get going. These next couple of days are going to be pretty busy.


9/20/2013 Fun with puppets

The third Timmy Tonka strip is up as this week's voter bonus comic. You can also view the past ones on the Extras page.

I'm running a little late right now, but I have to take a few minutes to say how awesome Puppeteer on the PS3 is. If you haven't heard of it, I can't blame you. It hasn't gotten a lot of press and I only found out about it shortly after it was released. Anyway, Puppeteer follows the story of Kutaro, a boy who is kidnapped and turned into a puppet in order the serve the evil Moon Bear King. But, thanks to the help of a not entirely trustworthy witch and her cat, he soon comes into possession of Caliburn, a legendary pair of scissors, and sets off to save the moon and find a way back home. If you hadn't guessed, the story is somewhat fairy tale inspired and isn't meant to be taken all that seriously. In fact, it's often pretty hilarious thanks to a fun cast of characters and some excellent voice acting. To make things even more interesting, the entire tale is actually a play, complete with an excellent narrator, and actors that tend to break the fourth well every once in while. The visuals back up the play aspect, with props and backgrounds getting moved around as the scene progresses, clouds hanging from wires, giant monsters filled with gears, and the like. The overall presentation is fantastic and I could go on about it for quite a while, but it would be easier to just point you to a trailer.
But what about the gameplay? Puppeteer is a 2.5D platformer, and a very good one at that. Kutaro starts out running and jumping his way through levels, but once he gets Caliburn you find that a giant pair of scissors not only makes a good weapon, but can be used to as a sort of flight tool, letting you remain airborne so long as there are things to snip. And that's only the beginning, Kutaro receives a steady steam of new powers as the game progresses, along with a huge variety of amusing magical heads, which can be used to open up various secrets, bonus levels, and alternate routes. It's easy to learn, everything controls perfectly, and the level design is the most fun, creative, and varied that I've seen since Kirby's Epic Yarn. I've sliced my way through a flock of bats high above a castle, raced a rocket powered squid through the depths of the ocean, climbed my way through a Mexican style village, and sliced up a giant snake from the inside, and that's just a few awesome moments out of many. With each new level, I'm not only looking forward to the further adventures of the lovably wacky cast, but eager to see what crazy challenges the level designers will throw at me next. And, on top of all of that, it's only $40. Really, I can't say enough good things about this game, the more I play, the more I love it. If you have a PS3, you really should get a copy.


9/18/2013 Amano

There will be no comic tomorrow, since I'll be celebrating the first day of Sukkot. Normal updates will resume on Friday.

I've been looking through a collection of art by Yoshitaka Amano, the concept artist for the earlier Final Fantasy games. It's interesting to compare his original drawings with the sprite art from the games. Some things are recognizable, but many are completely different. Back in the NES and SNES days, the systems really didn't have enough power to come anywhere close to an accurate recreation of the artwork. And, to be honest, that might have been a good thing in some cases. I mean, I like Amano's art but his chocobos are pretty creepy... Anyway, game systems have gotten considerably more powerful and in the Dissidia games you can finally see the early Final Fantasy characters the way they were meant to look, down to all the little intricate details on their outfits. That said, they're still not exactly an accurate representation of Amano's art. His drawings have a very loose and wispy yet distinctive dreamlike style to them, while the Final Fantasy games go for a more realistic approach with a touch of anime. While I'm content leaving Final Fantasy the way it is, I think it would pretty cool to see an original game with the graphics done entirely in Amano's style, as if the entire game world was his drawings come to life. And this is really the time to do it as. Near photo realistic graphics are cool and all, but many of the games that really stick out these days graphically are the ones that choose a more unique art style. Just look at Okami's beautiful Japanese woodblock style visuals, the somewhat trippy water color approach taken by El Shaddai, or the patchwork levels of Kirby's Epic Yarn, just to name a few. Amano is still involved in video games, but I hope that he'll eventually go beyond what he's done so far and help create a game that truly showcases his unique artistic vision.


9/16/2013 Not loving the bugs

Well, Yom Kippur is over, though I've got another holiday (Sukkot) starting up later this week. Fortunately, it's a much more fun holiday and, since I'm living in an apartment right now and can't build a sukkah (a booth of sorts you're supposed to sleep in during the holiday), there isn't much I need to do in preparation.

So, it's "love bug" season here in Florida. Basically, it's a period of a month or so when these black bugs (a little like to fireflies in shape and size, but without the cool glow) are all over the place. They're so named because it's also they're mating season so they tend to fly around in pairs. While they can be annoying if you're trying to walk or sit outside, it's not like they bite or sting or anything like that. The really bad part of love bug season is what they do to your car. It's impossible to drive anywhere without ending up with tons of the things splattered across your hood and windshield. It gets pretty disgusting after a while. I keep wanting to get a really good car wash, but if I don't wait a couple more weeks until the bugs leave, I'll just have to do it all over again before too long. Of course, if I don't do it before then, I might not be able to see out my windshield...



9/13/2013 Almost over...

The next Timmy Tonka strip is up as this week's bonus comic! And, if you missed the first one, it's been added to the Extras page.

Well, this hasn't been a bad week. I got a bunch of different stuff done and was able to spend some time hanging out with friends. But it's also been really busy and, with Yom Kippur (a major Jewish holiday) starting tonight, there's still more to go. I'll be glad when it's all over. Next week should be a lot calmer and, by extension, less stressful and more relaxing. At least assuming nothing unexpected comes up.

For now though, there are a few more things I still really need to get done today so I'll see you Monday!


9/11/2013 Always things to do

I'm afraid I don't have much time to write anything at the moment. A whole bunch of random stuff has been keeping me busy for the last few days both in and outside of work and it doesn't seem like that's going to change until the end of of the week. Maybe I'll have time to write something more interesting for Friday...


9/9/2013 Multi-tasking

I had a pretty productive, though rather ordinary weekend. Tried to do a few too many things at once on Sunday though. I'm normally pretty good at multi-tasking but there are limits. This time, there were just too many things to handle at one time, the result being that some of them got finished and others didn't get much of anywhere. Today's news post is annoying, one of the latter, so I'll just see you Wednesday.


9/6/2013 Bok Tower

There's a new voter bonus comic... But this is no ordinary Blooper Reel comic. Instead, it's the start of that new donation reward mini-series, Timmy Tonka and the Pebble Version Factory. I've decided to run it as voter comics until I'm caught up with all the strips I owe you guys. So, just click the TWC button on the left and vote if you want to see it. Or, if you don't want to vote, it will be added to this site in a week, just like all the regular Blooper Reel comics are. Now for the travelogue...

Monday (September 2nd): Bok Tower Gardens
My first few weeks back in Florida after summer vacation were pretty busy between the start of classes, finishing up my second story for EverQuest Next, and assorted other stuff. But, by the time Labor Day weekend came around, I was mostly caught up on things and ready to get away for a day. At first, I was thinking I'd just revisit a theme park, but then I decided that, for my first trip of the school year, I should start with something new.
Bok Tower Gardens is a botanical gardens down near Legoland. And, in fact, that's where I first heard about it, actually.  They've got a miniature Bok Tower there built out of Legos. Anyway, Bok Tower Gardens is primarily a botanical garden. And it's a fairly nice one at that, with a wide variety of plants and flowers. There were some animals around too. Squirrels mostly, though I also spotted a couple of gopher tortoises. You know, for turtles they actually move pretty fast. That was the only decent picture I was able to get.
After walking through the garden for a bit, I took a nature trail that went through an area filled with plants that are native to this part of Florida. There were even some cacti, which I really wouldn't have expected.
The trail eventually looped back to where I started. My next stop was Pinewood Estate, a luxurious Spanish style mansion (complete with its own little gardens) built a long time ago by a certain Mr. Buck (not to be confused with Mr. Bok, who built the gardens and tower). It was pretty impressive, despite the fact that the guy only lived there for about six weeks a year. Rich people... Even if I had that kind of money, I can't imagine building a whole mansion to stay in for such a short amount of time.
After exploring the estate, it was back to the gardens to see Bok Tower itself. Aside from the impressive exterior, Bok Tower is also a carillon (a fancy type of bell tower) with 60 bells. It plays various songs (sometimes live, sometimes automated) every half hour. You can hear it from pretty much anywhere in the garden, but I hung out by the tower for a while to listen as well.
I finished my tour of the gardens in the early afternoon and decided that, since it was on the way back, I might as well spend the rest of the day at one of the Disney water parks. Unfortunately, the weather had other plans and a thunderstorm started up after about an hour. Oh well, I had plenty of water park admissions left on my Disney pass, so it's not like I really had to pay for admission. So I hung out at Downtown Disney for a while instead. The Irish place there has pretty good meat pies.
Anyway, weather aside, it was a nice day. While Bok Tower Gardens isn't one of the most exciting attractions in the area, if you want to get away from all the more touristy stuff and spend two or three hours enjoying nature, it's not a bad choice.


9/4/2013 So close...

I really wanted to have that travelogue entry ready for today but I was running a bit late and didn't quite get it finished. No special reason. I just started working on a few things that ended up taking longer than I thought they would. Sorry about that. I also have to announce that there will be no new PV strip tomorrow. But that's for an entirely different reason. Specifically, tomorrow is Rosh Hashanah and I'll be attending services and the like, so I won't be able to update. So the next new strip, and that travelogue, will be up on Friday.


9/2/2013 Travel plans

Honestly, I don't have much of anything else to talk about right now. Other than doing some Pokémon battling, it's been a pretty typical weekend so far. Did some cooking, gave my apartment a good cleaning, and all that type of stuff. Useful, but not especially interesting or exciting. Today though, I have plans. And it looks they'll be leading to a travelogue entry as well...

Anyway, I need to get some sleep before today's outing so I'll talk to you later!


8/30/2013 Holidays!

As usual, there's a new Blooper Reel strip for everyone who votes.

For me, September this year means lots of holidays. Monday will be Labor Day (which I get off of work), and then there's several Jewish holidays coming up which I had to take off for (though that used up most of my personal days). Some of the holidays are more relaxing than others though. This weekend will be nice (I'll be taking a day to go somewhere fun), but the next couple of holidays after that are a lot more serious.

But anyway, what I want to do right now is get some sleep. For a variety of reasons, I've had too many late nights this week. But, with two four day weekends coming up in a row (Labor Day then Rosh Hashanah), I think I'll recover pretty quickly.



8/28/2013 Project Diva

I picked up my Project Diva F pre-order yesterday! I've been a big fan of the series ever since I got the first game the first time I went to Japan. Since then, I've bought the other titles on subsequent trips and enjoyed them all. F is the first one to get a US release though. It's also the first game in the main series to move off the PSP to the PS3 and Vita (though only the PS3 version was released in the US). If you're not familiar with it, Project Diva is a series of music games featuring Hatsune Miku and other Vocaloid singers (if you're not familiar with Miku or Vocaloids in general, see the last entry on this page of my Japan travelogue). From a gameplay perspective, they're fairly standard music games (push buttons in time to the music), but very well done. And I personally really like nearly the entire song list, which is more than I can say for most of the music games I play. I haven't had much time to spend with F yet, but it adds a lot new features compared to previous games (most of which are for the better). Playing on a TV with a full controller, rather than on my PSP, is going to take some getting used to though. While I've pretty much mastered the games on the PSP, the buttons on the PS3 controller are a little further apart which throws off my timing slightly (and makes my thumb tire more quickly). Project Diva is also a game where you really need to keep on eye on the entire screen at once, since the notes can come in from any direction. And that's a lot easier to do on the PSP's 3.8 inch screen than my forty something inch TV. But anyway, Project Diva F is a great game and I'm really happy Sega decided to release it in the US. If you're a fan of music games, Vocaloid music, or both, it's worth checking out.


8/26/2013 Another milestone

It's taken a bit over ten years, but PV has finally reached the 1500th comic. We'll be taking the rest of the week (remember, it's Mon - Fri updates right now) to check in on some familiar faces we haven't seen in a while. And, as Team Aqua and Magma's plans begin to pick up pace, so will some of my original plot lines. It may not be too long before a couple of the mystery characters are finally revealed...

Well, I had a productive, if not especially exciting, weekend. But with a four day weekend coming up for Labor Day, I'm definitely going to go somewhere then, assuming the weather is decent. Which brings up the issue of my Florida travelogue. There will probably be a few entries here and there, but don't expect very many. The reason being that I've already written about nearly all the places I'm likely to visit. There are one or two new ones though, and maybe the occasional special event. But we'll talk about those when we come to them.



8/23/2013 Back in the swing

This week's voter bonus comic is up. Now that the Forum Awards series is over, it's back to Blooper Reel strips for a while. And, as far as the main PV comics go, remember that we're back to five new strips per week (Mon - Fri), so if you're not looking every day, you may have missed some.

Well, I'm one week into classes and things are going decently so far. I'm also most of the way through my post summer vacation to-do list. I'm also finishing up the revisions on my second story for EverQuest Next. It'll be nice to have that done. Working on EQN has been awesome, but I am looking forward to getting back to Aurora's Nightmare for a while.

Anyway, I've still got a decent amount of stuff to take care of this weekend if I want to finish off that to-do list, so I'll see you Monday!


8/21/2013 Internet!

Remember, PV is updating Monday - Friday now so, if you feel like you missed something, click the Previous Comic button to see Tuesday's strip.

Well, it took close to a week and a half but I finally have full internet access again! The second guy who came out here got it all fixed. Well, sorta. He didn't actually need to come to my apartment to fix the problem. It turns out that I was right and they never fully turned off the vacation hold on my account. After checking a few things, the guy called his dispatcher to check, she confirmed that was the case, and then she switched it back. While it's great to have internet again, it's frustrating (and kinda sad) that any one of the several tech support people I talked to on the phone over the past week and a half could have fixed the issue in a matter of seconds if they actually knew what they were doing. But at least it's all good now...at least so long as they don't try to charge me for service calls.



8/19/2013 Internet woes

Starting today, PV is switching back to a Mon - Fri update schedule! That means five new comics per week, though news posts will remain a Mon, Wed, Fri thing. I'm hoping to keep this up until I catch up on all the weeks I owe (which would be early November).

Ugh... I'm really not in a great mood right now. The reason being that my internet still isn't working. Well, that and how much of a pain it's been trying to get it fixed. This whole mess started Sunday last week, when I was returning to Florida after Otakon. I'd had my Cox account on vacation hold over the summer so I called them to turn it back on. Except the guy told me that it wasn't on vacation hold and I'd been billed normally all summer. That wasn't good...but it turned out he was wrong. I double checked both my Cox account and my credit card records and no, I hadn't been billed. But, when I got back, it turned out that, while my cable TV worked just fine, the internet didn't. Naturally, I started out by resetting everything, bypassing my router, trying to connect with different devices, and the like, all to no avail. So I called Cox last Monday and was told that my area was experiencing an outage and the guy wasn't sure when it would be fixed. Well, nothing to do about that, so I waited a few days and, when it still wasn't working, gave them another call. The new person said there was no outage (not sure if it was fixed or if there was never one in the first place and the previous guy lied about it to avoid actually having to troubleshoot my connection). I spent a while on the phone with the technician and failed to make any progress so they sent someone out here this past weekend. He replaced some cables, boosted the signal strength to the modem, and recommended I replace my nearly nine year old cable modem to improve connection speeds. The one thing he never actually did, which I thought was rather strange, was check to see if web pages actually loaded before he left. And, when I checked, it still didn't work (even better, it looks like I'm going to get billed for that visit despite it's non-effectiveness). At that point, if I assumed that the cox technicians I'd worked with knew what they were doing, I'd ruled out every possible source of the problem except the cable modem. So I decided to take the guy's advice and get a new one. If I was going to do that, I figured I might as well go all out, get a really nice one, and upgrade my equally old router to a new N model as well. Yesterday I went to Best Buy, spent $200 on new equipment, and went back to give things another try. I had no trouble loading and going through Cox's web based modem activation system but, when that was done, I still couldn't load any web pages. But this new modem provides much better status reports then my old one and, going off of that, it really looks like everything on my end is fine (which it kind of has to be, since I've ruled out the computer, modem, router, cables, and wiring as potential causes). Instead, it looks like Cox is blocking my account from getting full internet access. So I called them up yet again, told all this to the technician, who, surprise surprise, didn't do anything. Instead, I now have a second person scheduled to come out here Tuesday evening. This time, I'm definitely not letting them leave until they've made sure web pages actually load. Personally, I think they have some setting for my account wrong on their systems (like vacation hold being left on or some such), but they insist it's all fine.

If my college hadn't given me this little cell network modem last year I'd be going crazy. Problem is, it's really slow (I can do basic e-mail and web browsing but that's about it, and even that can be sluggish) and I can only use it with my laptop so I can't download updates my game consoles, get on Netflix with my PS3, or anything like that.

And just to make my life that much more frustrating, my wireless printer, which used to work flawlessly, decided it just doesn't want to work with my network anymore. I spent a couple of hours trying to troubleshoot it early last week with no luck, only to have it randomly start working again later (after I'd already printed my stuff somewhere else). Then, yesterday, after installing the new modem and router, I connect the printer and it successful printed a test page. Then, later that day, I actually wanted to print something...so of course it stopped working again. It took me the better part of an hour to get it connected to the network again (side note: WPS sucks) and, despite all signs pointing to it being properly connected, my computer can't find it and I still can't print anything. At this point, I may have to just wait and hope that it randomly starts working again. Or maybe try some more serious troubleshooting once my internet is fixed.

But yeah, long story short, I've been stuck without proper internet for over a week and still have until at least tomorrow evening to go, I can't print anything, and I've wasted a bunch of time and money trying to fix said problems without making any real progress. At this point, I'd rather like to strangle those Cox technicians and smash my printer. With any luck, the guy coming Tuesday will fix the internet and my printer will fix itself but, the way things have been going, I'm not going to hold my breath.


8/17/2013 Otakon

Before we get to the travelogue, I have a few other things to mention. First up, the last of this year's Forum Awards comics is up for everyone who votes. It features forum member Doodleshark. Also, while I didn't really do anything to commemorate it, Monday marked the start of PV's 11th year. Maybe I'll save the "speech" for the upcoming 1500th strip.

Next, my main internet connection is still down. While I'm making due with that cell modem, it's slow and not entirely reliable, so if I take a while to respond to e-mails, an update is late, or the like, that's probably the reason. I'm gonna have to call up Cox later today and see if they have any updates on that outage...

Finally, Pacific Rim is a really awesome movie. Yeah it's got an overly generic title, and there are no shortage of movies about giant robots fighting aliens, but it's got good characters and draws heavily from both Japanese monster movies and "super mecha" style anime, making it the best action movie I've seen in ages.

Otakon 2013: Aug 9 - 11
For those of you who don't know, Otakon is an anime convention that takes place every year in Baltimore. It's one of the country's longest running anime conventions (this was its 20th year) and, with nearly 35,000 attendees this year, also the second largest (after Anime Expo in California). Fun note,
the character Otakon in Metal Gear Solid actually got his nickname from Otakon the convention. And that's actually how I learned about the convention in the first place.
This was actually my second time at Otakon. The first was back in 2004, when I went for a day with my cousin Curtis (well, technically a second cousin or once removed or something). You can actually read a little bit about it if you go back to the Old News from PV's first year. That was my first anime convention as well and I remember it best for introducing me to Bobobo and Full Metal Alchemist, as well as being the place where I got my FFVIII Griever pendant, which I tend to wear quite a lot (take a look at the photos I've posted of myself in various travelogues and you'll spot it pretty quickly).
That trip was a lot of fun and I've always wanted to go back to Otakon, but later that year I moved to Arizona for university and, since then, I've just never been able to work it out. For the last few years, there's been another reason I've wanted to attend. Specifically, some longtime friends of my from the PV Forums began to attend regularly, and it seemed like the best way to meet them in real life. When I was making my travel plans for this summer, it looked like I might actually be able to work in Otakon. And, when I saw that Chiaki Ishikawa (one of my two favorite Japanese singers) was going to be a guest, I was even more determined to do so. And, in the end, it all worked out. My cousin Curtis actually lives right near the Baltimore convention center now, so I was able to stay with him, and Alex (another cousin), came along for the ride as well.
I'm not going to do a full day by day write-up, but I'll summarize a bit... First up, I remembered Otakon being big, but it's grown quite a lot since 2004 (it's usually not quite as bad as in the picture though, quite a lot of people there are in line for the Wolf Children premiere). It's not as large as some of the game conventions and conferences I've been too, but it's the largest anime convention I've ever attended by far. At any given time, there were a number of different anime showing in the screening rooms, sessions on all sorts of anime, manga, and game related topics, and autograph sessions with with an impressive collection of special guests. And that's not mentioning the large game room, the manga library, the impressive dealer's hall, and the various other special events and areas. While there are some small cons I've really enjoyed in the past, Otakon's size and scale really ensure that there's always something for everyone.
So what did I do? Well, first off, I met up with forum members Stevenson, Silver, and Colly (from left to right). I've known them all for a long time online (around nine year's, in Silver's case) but this was our first time meeting in person. It was a little awkward at first, but they were pretty much how I pictured them and we ended up hanging out together for most of the con and had a lot of fun. It's too bad we don't live closer to each other. As a side note, I know I look a little odd in the photo, but the guy who had my camera wasn't so great with timing, while the guy with Silver and Colly's camera wasn't so good at focusing...so we've got two rather imperfect photos. You can probably tell by the photo that they have a Professor Layton cosplay theme going on, so here's a group photo with the addition of Stevenson's girlfriend as Emmy to complete the set. As you can likely tell, I didn't cosplay. I think it would be fun to try, but I'd need a lot of time before hand to prepare a good costume. But hey, I'm wearing one of those shirts I got in Tokyo, so that should count for something, right?
Anyway, there were a lot of cosplayers at Otakon, ranging from the extremely impressive to the horrifying. While I didn't take nearly as many cosplayer photos as some people, I did get shots of a few of my favorites. Not all the cosplayers were characters from Japanese anime/manga/games either. I never quite got the point of cosplaying an American made character at an anime convention, but some of the costumes were still pretty cool.
Outside of taking photographs, I learned how to play koi koi (a game using traditional Japanese hanafuda cards), watched some bad anime with funny Mystery Science Theater style commentary, watched some good anime, did a little bit of shopping (mostly just looking, since my time in Japan seriously depleted both my spending money and the amount of free space in my luggage), went to Q&A panels with some of the guests, and attended the Masquerade. Speaking of the Masquerade, while the name always made me think of masquerade balls, it's basically a series of skits (often involving dancing) put on by convention attendees. There were a couple of pretty good ones, a few really bad ones, and a whole lot of "meh" ones to round things out. Though I've heard that it used to be a lot more awesome in the past, only to take a major nose dive last year. I also got Chiaki Ishikawa's autograph (a high priority for me), and managed to get into Sunday's concert, where she opened for Yoko Kanno (who has composed the music for many famous anime). Chiaki Ishikawa's mini-concert was awesome, though way too short, while Yoko Kanno did an amazing solo piano performance of various songs she's composed. Finally, I spent a lot of time waiting in lines (especially to get a pass for that concert). Fortunately, Silver and Colly turned me on to the 3DS's street pass mini-games, and you'd be hard pressed to find a better place to work on those.
Overall, I had a really great time at Otakon.  I didn't get to go to everything I wanted, but I did get in my all my top picks, had a lot of fun hanging out with my friends and cousins, and just enjoyed the general atmosphere. It took me nine years to make it back to Otakon but it was worth it. Hopefully I won't have to wait nearly as long for my third visit.


8/14/2013 Tech troubles

I really wanted to have that Otakon write-up ready for today. Unfortunately, between work related meetings, class prep, and some important errands, I'm having an extremely busy week and, in the end, I only had time to either finish the write-up or today's PV strip, but not both. Plus, the internet is down at my apartment (apparently, there were some really bad storms right before I returned to Florida) and they have no idea when it will be fixed. Fortunately, I have a USB modem I can use which connects via the cell network. Unfortunately, it's really slow, to the point where uploading the photos for the Otakon write-up would be pretty difficult anyway. I really hope they get it fixed soon. And that was only one of a number of unpleasant problems that cropped up on Monday... Monday was horrible. But at least yesterday wasn't too bad, and today is pizza day, which always improves my mood.

Anyway, I'll do my best to have that Otakon write-up ready for Friday, though my limited internet access could have other ideas...


8/12/2013 Just kidding

After the previous bonus comic, I couldn't resist. Regular PV strips will resume on Wednesday. But anyway, I did have an awesome time hanging out with Silver, Colly, and Stevenson at Otakon. Expect a write-up later this week. For now though, I really need to get a little sleep before work starts.



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